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8 Leadership Skills to Build Smart Risk MuscleThis article is part of our women’s leadership series on the 8 skills you need to transform your leadership presence, based upon the book See Jane Lead, by Lois Frankel, Ph.D.

Earlier this year I wrote a post about James Dyson, the inventor of the one household product I own that’s worthy of an entire post.

James Dyson knew a thing or two about risk and allowing himself a path of mistakes on the way to greater outcomes.  He calls it “wrong thinking,” or giving ideas a try to see what happens, rather than dismissing them out of the gate because there’s a chance they could turn out to be wrong.

Amazingly, it took 5,127 tries to create the first working prototype of the now-famous Dyson vacuum.

That’s over 5,000 wrong solutions to create the single right solution that propelled the inventor and the organization to success.  You can read that post here.

There’s a lesson in that for emerging women leaders, and Dr. Frankel dedicates an entire chapter to this lesson in See Jane Lead.

To transform our leadership presence and impact, we have to take smart risks.

Smart risk is actually a muscle and a skill we can build.

Every time we embrace taking a chance, and try something new, we’re stepping up to the plate as leaders.  You’ve taken a risk if you’ve:

  • Applied for a new position or taken on an assignment that’s a stretch from what you currently do
  • Moved to a new company
  • Spoken up in a meeting, especially with an opinion that may not be popular
  • Advocated for someone on your team
  • Asked for a raise
  • Ended a client contract because it’s not serving the client or your organization
  • Taken an international assignment or relocated
  • Chaired a visible committee in your company or within a professional organization

As women, we tend to be very careful about taking on risk, and that can be both a strength and a weakness.  On one hand, that careful approach keeps us from doing something wild before weighing all of the options.  On the other hand, it can be paralyzing because we over-think, over-analyze, and over-ask for the opinions of others.

It’s important to look at risk taking from both the mindset and skill perspectives:

  • We have to build the belief in ourselves as smart risk taker, while at the same time building the thought processes and actions associated with smart risk.
  • We need to set aside the idea that we’re either born with the “risk gene” or we’re not.  Taking risks is a skill to be learned and practiced.

How do we become masterful at both the mindset and the behaviors of taking smart risks?  Below are just a few ways you can get started:

  • Build your risk muscle by trying new things in everyday life.  Who we are at work and who we are at home shouldn’t be two different things.  If you’re building that risk muscle in leadership, it helps to cultivate it in all aspects of your life.  What is something you’ve always wanted to try but have yet to make it happen?  That’s where you can start.  Maybe it’s taking a language class, taking an art class, learning a new sport, or planning an event.  Whatever it is – do it!  Taking action will help you to build the mindset and skill muscles.
  • Assess the facts and the emotions of any decision that involves risk.  One of our strengths as women is tuning into those gut feelings, the intuitive side of things.  Use that to your advantage by honestly analyzing both the emotional and factual side of any risk.  As you evaluate both sides, ask yourself these questions to help the process:
      • Am I working with enough information to make a good decision?
      • Have I taken a similar risk in the past, and what was the outcome? What did I learn?
      • How am I reducing the possibility of negative outcomes?
      • What support will I need to make this risk work out?
      • If this risk doesn’t work out as planned, am I willing to accept that?
      • Am I excited about this risk?
      • Does it contribute to my goals?
      • Does it talk to my head and my heart?
  • View success on a continuum.  How often do we see “success” and “failure” as complete opposites?  Something is either a success or it’s a failure?  Not true.  Every time we take a risk and try something new, there will be successful outcomes, and also ways to learn and become better the next time around.  It’s in your perspective.  Let go of the idea that this is an all-or-nothing proposition, and give yourself some latitude for success as well as learning points.
  • Adopt a mindset that taking no risk is actually . . . risky.  Never taking a risk is a risk itself, plain and simple.  From a personal standpoint, if you never put yourself out there you will never know the reward or impact that comes with stepping into new possibilities.  From a professional standpoint, your credibility as a leader or future leader will be tarnished.  Dr. Frankel describes it this way:  “Remaining in your comfort zone or below the radar screen isn’t the best career strategy for leaders.  By definition, leaders create change – and that’s always risky. ”
  • Accept that failure from time to time is going to happen.  Sometimes, things just don’t work out as we envision them.  This is where we need to become masterful at separating the person from the actions.  This is where we become more resilient.  Dr. Frankel offers three important things to do when something doesn’t go as planned:
      • Accept responsibility without assigning blame.
      • Identify what you’ve learned.
      • Articulate those lessons to your team and leadership, and commit to applying them to the future.

Visit for more information about custom training solutions and professional development services offered by Impact Instruction Group.  Amy Franko also works with emerging women leaders, teaching concepts from the international best-sellers Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office and See Jane Lead to many national companies and organizations.

© 2012 Impact Instruction Group

© See Jane Lead is the copyright of Lois Frankel, Ph.D.

You are welcome to reprint this article. Please include the article in its entirety along with the bio and copyrights.

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