Risk Taking and Leadership

In every organisation I have worked in, I have observed that, the best leaders are calculated risk takers. To be absolutely blunt, the ability to take risks (following a prudent assessment of the pros and cons of any situation or opportunity), is an essential prerequisite of leadership. Nobody who is afraid or unwilling to take a calculated risk has any business sitting on the management team of a Council, or indeed any other organisation. The quote at the top of the page from the President of Pixar-Disney illustrates an essential part of the role of those occupying leadership positions the ability to empower everyone in the organisation to be less risk averse. Of course, I’m not talking about being cavalier, playing fast and loose with health and safety policies and procedures, I mean encouraging our staff to think and act (appropriately) outside the box. Now it’s one thing for a Council CEO to talk about creating a more ‘light on our feet’ and entrepreneurial approach to running the organisation, and its another to understand whether there is real ‘buy in’ further down the organisation. In my view it depends on six potential blockage factors and some suggested solutions are outlined below:

1. Credibility

Staff need to be really convinced that the top team will be supportive of them taking risks. Sure, they read the CEO’s words in the staff bulletin, but can they be convinced that the boss will still stand behind them if a new venture or approach fails? This is where one of the key ingredients of leadership comes in to play – and an absolute pre-requisite for any leader – it’s called ‘integrity’….. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the English language. Its about consistently doing that which you say you will do.. This is the main leadership trait Blackadder Associates stresses to all aspiring candidates for leadership positions, in our leadership development using Hogan Assessments and in our organisation reviews.

2. The Rumour Mill

While managerial approaches to communication revolve around bulletins and team briefings, it is often the organisation’s “grapevine” which carries the most resonance for those delivering front line services. If the overriding narrative on the grapevine revolves around horror stories about someone who took a risk and got their head (metaphorically) chopped off, then this will have a detrimental effect. No matter what the official policy is on risk taking, the real life horror stories shape the attitudes of staff. Communicate, communicate, communicate – the need to have a really effective internal ‘comms strategy’ is the key here.

3. Celebrating Success

Bang the drum, publicly congratulate the staff who successfully and carefully took risks. Staff need to be able to identify colleagues around them who have thought creatively and acted outside the box and who were celebrated, rewarded and recognised for it. By publicly thanking risk takers it encourages others to ‘buy in’ to a more progressive approach.

4. Tackling Middle Management Blockages

It takes more than the support of the Senior Leadership Team to encourage risk taking. In my experience middle managers can often be the most wedded to the status quo and can be resistant to change. Without the absolute support of this tier of management then encouraging front line staff to think outside the box is a non-starter. Most staff don’t interact with the CEO regularly, but they do with their line manager, and will take their cue from what they say. So, buy-in from middle managers and front-line supervisors is vital.

5. Addressing the Fear Factor

Fear can induce inertia in an organisation. Fear of change, of failure and even of success. Fear among staff that anyone who is trying to promote the Council’s approach to risk taking will be perceived as ‘sucking-up’ to their bosses. I recall working at one particularly dysfunctional and stuck in its ways council, where being a team player meant preserving the status quo, or as it was put to me, ‘the way we do things around here’…. even if these ways were outdated, inefficient and non-customer friendly.

6. What’s the Point’?

Staff need to be aware of the big picture. Why the Council has decided to become less risk averse, why it is promoting a more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic approach. And why the benefit gained from their actions will be directly connected to the goals that are most important to the Council. It is absolutely vital that the organisation’s strategic direction and policy goals are clearly spelled out. Do your staff really know the key priorities of the Community Strategic Plan?     Modern day local government leaders need to be comfortable with taking risks and various academic studies have highlighted Innovation, Knowledge and Change as key attributes in this regard.


An innovator recognises a great idea – maybe not even their own and perhaps devised by another member of staff– and envisions the path that leads to that idea moving from concept through to fruition. So, we are talking less about the leader as creative genius and more about the ability to form a coherent vision around an idea, then sharing this with colleagues, customers and most importantly with Councillors, sharing the enthusiasm and ensuring that the vision turns into reality.


All human progress has been achieved via some form of trial and error. We must accept that it is well-nigh impossible to improve the quality of Council services or to improve customer experience and increase efficiency if senior managers are unduly risk averse. Modern day management requires bold leaders who we can truly admire – those who take it upon themselves to promote calculated risk taking and who promote innovation.


Increasingly Councils are appointing CEOs to act as ‘agents for change’. A leader who (in conjunction with the council) sets the organisation in a direction and influences people to follow that direction. Change without outstanding leadership can lead to poor performance and, in extreme examples even chaos. During the process of change, failures in leadership can result in poor morale, in negative responses from employees and organisational instability. Those who aspire to sit on a Council Leadership Team are charged with demonstrating a need for change, establishing a clear vision, creating milestones for the change program and most importantly acting as a visible focal point during the change process. Risk taking is an increasingly critical element of leadership within a local government context, with risk taking being defined as undertaking a task in which there is a lack of certainty or a fear of failure. The leadership challenge is to confront ‘fear’ – risk taking is fear; fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking like a fool, fear of seeming ignorant, fear of seeming too aggressive. We need bold leaders to move local government forward and this means leaders who have the courage to take calculated risks and drive forward on an agenda to ensure that local government services in Australia can be truly called ‘world class’. Perhaps a closing comment about the difference between management and leadership. At Blackadder Associates we talk a lot about Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, formerly of the US Navy (1906 – 1992). Amazing Grace as she was referred to said “you manage things and you lead people”. What she meant is you manage time, tasks, finance, projects, etc etc – but you don’t manage people – you lead them…… And, leadership is about having a clear vision of the future and motivating and inspiring people to get there…. We hope you can inspire your staff and your organisation to make it safe to take risks!   By Will Taylor MBE for Blackadder Associates Will Taylor is a freelance consultant and speaker. He was formerly a UK Council CEO and a consultant with Blackadder Associates.