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5 Great Leadership Risks

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I wish I could tell you that there’s a clear-cut, linear path to becoming a leader, but there isn’t; instead, you’ll need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable-ness of learning from your personal successes and failures as you go.

And by definition, your successes and failures are predicated on the risks you take. (A practice I like to call “Pursuing the OS!M.”)

But this isn’t about taking irresponsible or arbitrary risks. To become an Extreme Leader, you’ll need to strive to take the right risks at the right time—so what are they?

This is not a complete list, to be sure, but here is a selection of five great leadership risks for you to explore, experiment, fail, and succeed with:

1. The Risk of Forgiveness

Has anyone on your team ever failed to help you achieve your goal? It’s too easy to give up on these people, to write them off completely—even because of that one, isolated incident.

Instead, how about giving him or her a second chance? Does that feel risky?


We all know that anyone can have a bad day that leads to a missed deadline, subpar work, or other problems. So, try offering coaching and feedback and giving this person a second chance at redemption.

Second chances are rare, and leaders who provide people with an opportunity to learn from a past mistake will reap great rewards in the form of trust, loyalty, and commitment to the team. Your showing confidence in a person who failed to accomplish a goal can help this individual feel more self-assured, which will likely pay off in outstanding results the next time around.

To put it simply: forgive, coach, and let them try again.

2. The Risk of Vulnerability

The idea that a leader should appear to be perfect and infallible is hogwash. Showing the cracks in your armor only proves that you’re human. And that—contrary to the so-called conventional wisdom—will make you better equipped to consistently earn the most from your team.

Paradoxical as it may seem, your vulnerability is powerful—as long as it’s relevant to the situation at hand. This isn’t about standing up in front of your team and weeping about the movie you watched last night. Showing how you feel about your collective challenges, exciting projects and tough decisions, however, will prove to your team how much you care, and it will inspire them to care, too.

3. The Risk of Integrity

If you’re being even a little bit innovative in your work, your decisions will be unpopular at times. So, what do you do then? Do you back down at the first sign of resistance? Listen, if somebody proves you wrong, or gives you new information to show that you’re fundamentally misguided, then by all means put your ego away, admit your error, and change course accordingly.


You also need to learn when it’s crucial to stand up for yourself. If you’re truly, madly, deeply convinced that you’re in the right, then say so and prove it. If you’re being asked to compromise your integrity by being pressured to do something that runs counter to your values, hold firm. That way, even if you’re under intense scrutiny, you’ll be able to show others that you’re committed to doing what is best for your company. And they, in turn, will stand up for you.

In the classic comedy, Duck Soup, Groucho Marx famously said, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did.”

Fight for your own honor, but also take…

4. The Risk of Giving Support

Reverse roles for a moment: is it easy for you to criticize others who take an unpopular stance on a particular issue? A great leader is prepared to stand up for others, especially when it’s extremely difficult to do so.

For example, it takes a lot of courage for someone on your team to stand up and present a new idea during a business meeting. Maybe at first blush you’re not crazy about what you’re hearing. But even though the idea may be a work in progress, strive to listen intently and fully understand the reasoning behind it. And then, at the very least, acknowledge the presenter’s willingness to stand and deliver. Then lead an open-minded discussion with the team. What you’re doing is standing up for this brave person’s right to creative expression.

And when folks on your team have a great idea—especially one that flies in the face of the organizational status quo—do whatever you can to garner support and run interference with and represent them to the higher-ups. As uber-coach, Marshall Goldsmith, calls it: “challenge up; support down.” Imagine the loyalty that it will gain you. It is, undoubtedly, a risk worth taking.

5. The Risk of Overcoming Adversity

It’s way too easy to give up in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, in many situations, lots of so-called business professionals will do just that. But, “Take a punch; throw in the towel” would make a terrible leadership motivational poster, wouldn’t it?

As an Extreme Leader, your job is to accept and welcome setbacks, challenges, obstacles, and adversities, and try to transform them into opportunities for innovation.

That’s an easy sentiment to agree with—every motivational speaker on the planet will tell you some version of the same thing and get you to nod your head in response—but it’s really hard to learn and practice, because it’s a double whammy: adversity means we’re at risk of getting hurt in some way—financially, emotionally, physically, etc—but the only way out is to take the risk of doing something different. The only way out of risk, is risk.

So we come full-circle in this discussion: those who embrace risk will be better equipped to overcome the inevitable challenges that come with the leadership territory.

Condition yourself—through consistent trial and error—to take these 5 Great Leadership Risks. Don’t wait for the fear to go away, because it won’t. Try, instead, to recognize the fear for what it is: the proof that you’re really doing something significant, that you’re racing ahead in your Extreme Leadership Journey.

What other risks would you add to this list?



Steve Farber

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Marshall Goldsmith


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  1. […] In a previous post, I listed “Vulnerability” as one of 5 Great Leadership Risks. […]

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