Has risk-taking gone too far?

I have just seen a very interesting video from the wonderful TED Talks.  Journalist Naomi Klein gave a talk on risk-taking and the narratives that we tell ourselves to justify risking the earth’s precious resources.  Her talk was interesting on many levels but I started to think about her comments mainly from the perspective of how we develop leaders within our organisations.  There is a lot of talk of taking “controlled risks” and being prepared to “step outside the box” for leaders, but what does this really mean?

Naomi Klein uses the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as the starting point to talk about how the world at large, mainly the developed economies, has become more and more inclined to take risks.  There always seems to be an underlying assumption that we will be somehow saved from whatever catastrophe looms, whether that be climate change or financial disaster.  She argues that many times we are not asking the right questions.  Rather than asking what can we do we should be asking what should we do.

I think that this is extremely pertinent in the aftermath of the greatest financial disaster since the Great Depression.  There has been much discussion about how the Global Financial Crisis could have happened, how business leaders and governments could have let things get this bad.  I think that we also need to be asking ourselves questions as educators and learning professionals.  While it is entirely appropriate to take our cues for leadership development from what the businesss wants (or at least says they want), we have an important role to use our expertise to ask the right questions.  Does any business want leaders who are impervious to doubt and always prepared to take the “tough decisions” or do we want more measured leaders who are prepared to sometimes wait for all of the information before rushing ahead.  We need leaders to can tell the difference between the decisions that can be made quickly and those that need greater research and consideration.

It’s a tough call, as learning professionals within organisations and universities we don’t always have the luxury of a strong voice.  Often we are guilty of getting on the bandwagon of the latest and greatest leadership development fad (mia culpa).  In order to make a real contribution to our organisations, we need to become better at asking questions and offering suggestions to our business leaders about what type of learning is required for the 21st century leader.  If leaders, of business and of government, continue to “play dice with the universe” as Einstein once memorably said, then we will not have much left for the rest of us.