Forbes: How leaders can learn the art of purposeful risk-taking

Forbes: How leaders can learn the art of purposeful risk-taking

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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.

When I think of an organization needing to assume risk to push its boundaries and reach stretch goals, no other organization comes to my mind than the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The scientific prowess that resulted in the first American to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969, is one of the most significant accomplishments of the modern era. The magnitude of this accomplishment was astounding.

Considering the technology we have access to today, taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” seems to have defied the technological advancements of that moment. The computers aboard Apollo 11 had 4 KB of random-access memory (RAM) and 74 KB of read-only memory (ROM), according to the BBC. That’s much less than the computer power we carry on our phones today.

NASA missions have taken significant risks necessary to move the needle on space exploration. I believe this example illustrates the potential of risk-taking in organizations, which can allow you to reach new heights. But how do we establish the correct tempo when considering organizational risk? As a leader in higher education, I have built a reputation for facing risk head-on. Many of my decisions, especially of late, have been extraordinarily difficult. I arrived at each one by channeling my purpose and looking ahead to what is best for our university. Using my engineering training, I rely on data when making these difficult decisions.

Leading through the pandemic caused executives to embrace uncertainty, evaluate the potential outcomes and risks at decision crossroads, and stand firm in the face of adversity. Leaders must be able to take strategic risks to keep their organizations on track. Here are three ways to lean into risk-taking as a means to succeed and grow:

Embrace uncertainty with a strategic mindset.

The global pandemic proved an excellent crash course for implementing and following through on risky decisions. In the spring of 2020, organizational leaders needed to act with no playbook. I recall the enormous upheaval of Covid-19 on our campus life. In a global panic, our students, faculty and staff navigated distance learning overnight. The herculean task of making things work under such circumstances pushed my team to their limits. Fortunately, hard work, determination and strong communication saw us through the once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

When facing uncertainty, you must strategically prepare for the worst while working together as a team. Instead of fearing the unknown, I encouraged my team to view uncertainty as an opportunity for innovation and growth. We developed a framework that allowed for calculated risk assessment, which enabled us to make informed decisions in the face of ambiguity. We looked closely at our academic structure and reorganized it, focusing on interdisciplinarity.

When it was time for the students to return four months later, we took a risk in welcoming everyone back to campus, according to our students’ preferences. We did our homework and consulted with the CDC to ensure our organization would thrive with appropriate safety measures.

Create a culture of experimentation.

Embrace a mindset that values experimentation and treats obstacles as steppingstones to success. Become a genuinely adaptive leader unafraid to challenge ingrained assumptions. Encourage your team to think beyond conventional boundaries.

If you reframe setbacks as opportunities and remain steadfast in your convictions during difficult times, I find that things often work out well. A proactive approach will empower your teams to deal with uncertainties effectively. Doing so will help your organization remain resilient in times of adversity.

Actively encourage experimentation by reminding your team regularly that growth often happens upon learning from failures. Create an environment where team members feel empowered to propose unconventional ideas without fearing retribution. Foster a workplace where curiosity thrives and everyone knows to push boundaries, and innovation will become a collective journey.

Diversify decision-making inputs.

While data is crucial in decision-making, don’t limit yourself solely to quantitative analysis. Instead, incorporate diverse perspectives, experiences and qualitative insights into your decision-making process. Consider the value of stories and qualitative data, particularly when finding solutions to problems with no single solution.

Viewing analytical information through a diverse human lens bridges the gap between data-driven insights and the real-world impact on individuals and communities. This inclusive strategy strengthens risk management and ensures decisions resonate ethically and sustainably with stakeholders.

Leading with agility and adaptiveness demands a commitment to swift action and continuous learning and refinement. Building a culture that internalizes the need for perpetual improvement is essential, given how quickly things change in business today.

Closing thoughts: Embrace strategic risk-taking.

Strategic risk-taking can bring significant advantages while positioning your organization to grow amid continuous transformation and emerging opportunities. Take chances and stay flexible as you navigate uncertainties so your organization can thrive in tough times. Develop the ability to pivot quickly in response to emerging challenges and opportunities. Reevaluate strategies, reallocate resources and reconsider long-held assumptions.

Furthermore, remember to always stand firm. Risk-taking can create tension, especially when your decisions are vital yet unpopular. Leadership is not a popularity contest; it will serve you well to understand it is impossible to please everyone.

Significant progress often follows periods of immense difficulty and organizational upheaval. It takes courage to remain strong when others question your choices and challenge your decisions. Ultimately, your risks will define your journey and shape your organization’s story.