top of page

You want strong leaders? Let them bump their heads…

There’s an interesting problem we encounter in leadership development. While it’s universally recognized that the abilities to face fear, manage risk and deal with uncertainty are essential to effective leaders, we’re still training people to avoid risk, pain, conflict and fear at almost all costs.

There are logical reasons why anyone, especially leaders would want to avoid risk and pain. But instead of keeping us safe, this avoidance is making us weaker and more vulnerable to disastrous consequences.

Many studies point to an alarming decline in cognitive thinking and problem solving skills. Many researchers suggest that technology is one of the problems––that we’ve created generations of human beings that can absorb lots of information, but can’t do much with it.

The results are showing up in the workplace, our communities and even in global politics. Our inability to relate to one another, identity politics, regression to tribalism and fundamentalism and rejection of science can all be traced to some degree to our declining ability to reason, cooperate and innovate creative solutions to our problems.

The only way to develop confidence, problem solving skills and comfort with uncertainty is to expose ourselves to it. And research shows that the earlier we do this, the better.

So what are the “5 Rules” that will help us develop confident, intelligent and collaborative young people?

How about “no rules?” That’s the radical experiment being conducted in New Zealand schools. And it’s working…

Can we apply some of these principles to training leaders?

In SENSEI LEADER Workshops I often implore leaders to take a chance as they develop the next generation. If you want to develop leaders that art more facile, more comfortable with uncertainty, more creative and responsive––you’ve got to let them fall down once in a while. You’ve got to expose them to risk, danger and uncertainty.

Again, there are valid reasons that established leaders might be hesitant to do this. Failures of subordinates can reflect badly on one’s hard-earned reputation. Mistakes can be expensive.

These “training risks” should be managed––but they must be real. Hypothetical training just doesn’t build cognitive or attitudinal muscle. There must be some chance of failure if someone is to feel true accomplishment and experience meaningful learning. Failures should not be considered disasters (most of the time) but should be studied and analyzed as opportunities for learning and growth.

Now before you take out the lollipops, I’m not advocating that we tolerate all failure or reward underachievement. Negligence should not be tolerated. Complacency is never acceptable.

This approach demands training, preparation and full attention. Before you expose someone to risk it is your responsibility to prepare them to the best of your ability. It’s essential to provide the resources that make success possible, even probable.

And you don’t usually have to manufacture opportunities for failure. There are usually plenty of opportunities for risk and innovation in your normal operations. The point is to allow developing leaders to engage in these opportunities, to support them in their efforts and use all experiences as a means for learning, growth and development––failure as well as success.

The research is clear that we’ve dropped the ball by not exposing young people to more opportunities to experience risk and uncertainty. We did so with the best of intentions––who wants their kids to get hurt?

But if our society is going to move forward in the future and face the great challenges that lay ahead, we had better start preparing leaders who have the courage, confidence and strength to think, create and take risks.

We had better start letting young leaders bloody their noses once in a while. Take a chance…


Friday, December 7th

Portland, Maine––UNUM Headquarters

8 AM to 12 Noon

ALL proceeds benefit Boots2Roots––enabling Maine’s newest active duty veterans to hit the ground running and add new energy to Maine’s workforce!

13 views0 comments
bottom of page