We are not firefighters or astronauts. We don’t put our lives on the line each day. But risk is not only about life or death situations. It is about choices we face daily and the decisions we choose to make.
Leadership is not about preserving the status quo. Leaders must be willing to take risks. It’s the only way you will achieve your vision. It may even be necessary to carry out your mission. I have frequently quoted James Conant who allegedly said, “Behold the turtle who only makes progress by sticking his neck out.” You can’t make changes, stay relevant, or be involved unless you take risks.
I can almost hear some of you saying I don’t understand your situation. Times are tough for librarians and the safest thing to do is to keep your head down. That might prove to be the riskiest possible course of action.
Back in the days before the economic crisis of 2008, I used to encourage librarians to develop cooperative or collaborative projects with teachers and find a way to keep their administrators in the loop while knowing their priorities. Elementary librarians would tell me they didn’t need to worry. They were part of the teachers’ contract. I reminded them that contracts are changed, but few listened. And then we had the great recession and elementary librarians suddenly didn’t seem necessary. At first middle and high school teachers thought they were secure. After all, they taught research skills and kids needed that for college. When times got tight, administrators in many places decided that with the internet they didn’t need the librarians.
I am not blaming all the librarians who lost their jobs – and the ones who are still at risk. Many excellent, pro-active librarians got swept up as school boards wrestled with severe budget cuts. But librarians who kept a low profile created the climate that made administrators and teachers believe nothing would be lost by eliminating librarians.
In other words, not risking is a risk. Naftali Hoff says much the same thing in The Risk of Staying in the Safe Lane. He uses the highway as an analogy, pointing to two different types of drivers. Some stay to the right, going at (or below the speed limit), feeling safe and secure in abiding by the rules. Others drive in the fast lane, pushing past the speed limit and cutting in and out to get one or two car lengths ahead.
Those fast drivers are clearly risking getting into an accident. But as Hoff points out, while crashes in the left lane are more serious than those in the slow lane, the right lane has a higher accident rate.
Hoff says those who choose safety over risk in the workplace do so for the following reasons:
- Believing nothing surrounding the current circumstances will ever change (for example, my industry, company, and job will always be there)
- Believing if so many people in front of us are doing the same thing, they must know what they’re doing.
The first reason overlooks a basic truth. There is no status quo. Life is always changing. As a leader, you must accept that, be alert for changes in the wind, and be ready to get out ahead of them.
Hoff offers these methods to help you be more risk resilient:
- Acknowledge that our natural state is risk aversion. From that vantage point, it is easier to take notice where we’re hesitating, then take the necessary action to grow and break through.
- When you’re about to make a decision and you feel afraid, ask yourself: “What is the worst-case scenario?” In most cases, it won’t be so bad after all.
You might one day take a really big risk – job hunting. I did it to the shock of many after a long time in the same school system. Few of us in education with tenure do not risk voluntary leaving their jobs. By doing it from a position of strength and on my terms, I found a new position which matched my goals.
Life isn’t safe. Risks are in an integral part of it. Thinking you are avoiding risk could easily cause you to lose more than those who are out there trying new things and being a visible presence. Look at your program and your mission. Look for where you can try one risk this week and see where it takes you.