Risk-taking: The Heart of Courageous Leadership

By Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

Collaborative Momentum Consulting defines courageous leadership as “the heart to step up front and transform vision into reality.” Courage is required for us to “step up” to lead—often in uncomfortable or risky situations. Addressing these situations requires the leader to be a calculated risk-taker—someone who not only takes risks, but encourages others to walk a similar path. The risk-taker accepts the possibility of failure and despite this potential, encourages innovation, creativity, and change in themselves and others.

How can we be a calculated risk-taker in our leadership roles in these uncertain times, particularly when many of us (particularly women) have been encouraged to be cautious and risk-averse?  Fear is often at the core of our reticence about risk-taking—fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking incompetent, fear of seeming overbearing.  Taking a risk requires acknowledging these fears and moving forward anyway.  Perhaps a reframing of the potential downside of risks may help you in think differently and support your ability to move forward.

  • There are risks associated with doing nothing. Careful consideration of the potential effects of taking and not taking a risk can provide us with the costs and benefits of each action or inaction.  Rarely when faced with a decision about a risk must we act immediately.  Thus, it is prudent to explore all possible outcomes before making a decision—this is the meaning of a calculated risk.
  • A calculated risk requires contingency planning before taking action.  This requires being a versatile thinker, considering a wide range of options should the risk yield unexpected results.  Before taking a risk, we should think of all possible outcomes—the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Creatively planning for as many potential results of the risk as possible provides the risk-taker with confidence that they have alternative options to draw from if necessary.  This preparation reduces the fear of failure that is the major stumbling block to being a courageous leader.
  • Factor your intuition into the calculation. When gathering data to make a decision about risk, people often overthink the situation even when their “gut” reaction strongly encourages them in one direction.  Years ago, I had to make a decision between two job options.  Both opportunities had obvious benefits and significant risks; yet I couldn’t make up my mind.  A mentor told me to “sit quietly and decide which option was the most exciting.”  This advice to “listen to my gut” was excellent because it was immediately clear which option I would choose.  Although the job proved to be very stressful and challenging, I learned a tremendous amount and have never regretted that particular risk.
  • Redefine Failure. While it is true that we may not succeed in our attempt to deal with the problem, (after all, that is why it is a “risk”), this lack of success should not be characterized as a failure.  Instead, the lessons we learn from the process will teach us things that will be important in the future.  Realizing that failure in a particular situation may lead to future success, when we learn from our mistakes. As T.S. Elliot said, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”

Recognizing the fear associated with taking a risky action is the first step in courageous leadership.  This recognition allows us to take an unbiased review of the potential outcomes the risk may generate.  Using the results of the evaluation, we become free to listen to our intuition in order to become a courageous leader. We are not hampered by the opinion of others who may criticize our choices.  As Theodore Roosevelt once said:

 “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly;  who errs, who comes short again and again…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.


Piscione, D.P. (2014) The Risk Factor:  Why Every Organization Needs Big Bets, Bold Characters and the Occasional Spectacular Failure.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press.

This article is one in a series on the components of Courageous Leadership. For more information, visit our Courageous Leadership web page.

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