Almost twenty years ago, I made a naïve mistake that could have cost me my life. Faced with this unexpected personal crisis, I learned a critical lesson about balancing excitement and bold action with prudence.On a scorching hot day in New Hampshire, I joined a group of friends heading down to the Connecticut River to cool off with a swim. In my excitement about my first river swim, known to be something that every Dartmouth student should try before graduation, I took off running full speed ahead, soon leaving the group behind. When I arrived at the dock, I jumped off the edge still running full speed. What a moment of reckless ebullience!
Having been a nationally ranked swimmer as a teenager, the thought of drowning never crossed my mind. Yet when I hit unexpectedly cold water on that hot day, I experienced something called a cold shock response, which can be deadly within a couple of minutes even in only moderately cold water. My chronically low blood pressure made me especially vulnerable. At impact, I knew something was wrong. My chest constricted and prevented me from breathing. My normally adroit swimmer arms and legs could barely move to keep me afloat. I was in a state of total panic at my own helplessness, shocked that my previous moment of effusive delight might end up being my last.I struggled to stay above water and gasped for air, unable to shout for help or swim to the safety of the dock just a few feet away. Then I saw a golden retriever running toward me. I don’t know how she knew I was in trouble, but she jumped into the water and swam straight for me. She circled close to me so I could grab her fur. Then she pulled me just a few feet to the dock that had seemed unreachable just seconds ago. This perceptive and altruistic golden retriever (whom I later learned was named Ceili) retrieved me. When friends arrived, I was sitting on the dock and hugging Ceili, grateful for her gift of a second chance.
Last week, I relayed this story to my five-year-old son. My protective mother side wanted to impart some wisdom to him about avoiding undue risks. I am reminded of the adage in the 25-year-old book that “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten,” because he taught me an unexpected lesson.“What could I have done differently?” He didn’t say, “Don’t jump.” Instead, he swiftly responded: “First, don’t go it alone. Second, wear a life jacket.”
Something clicked. In today’s fast-paced and competitive landscape, all of us, and especially leaders, need to be bold and decisive in taking action. The best leaders follow their intuition and excitement toward innovative directions and solutions. The best and boldest leaders jump. Yet, a fine line exists between swift decision-making and moving so fast toward an exciting opportunity that you jump into uncharted waters and put yourself and others at risk of an unnecessary crisis.
How can leaders jump without putting themselves at undue risk?
Follow Wise advice
First, don’t go it alone. While I jumped into the water alone, I wasn’t alone for long; Ceili, my safety net, followed shortly behind me.As a leader, there can be a huge cost to moving too fast and going it alone: an unexpected cold shock response! When you feel an impulse to go an exciting new direction, take time to look around and see who can help you evaluate the risk and move forward. Take time to reflect on the situation and get input from your team, colleagues, and staff. Without the perspective of others, you may be blind to unknown risks that could sink you.
Second, wear a life jacket. When you take a risk in order for your team, organization, company to grow, have a plan B to protect you and your team. Don’t expose yourself to too much risk too fast without having systems and supports in place to keep you afloat. You can move fast while also being prudent if you take time to collect data, make a checklist, and plan accordingly.
The next time you face a thrilling opportunity to take a risk that may make a positive difference for your team or organization, remember to introduce your reckless ebullience to your prudence, the art of thinking ahead and asking for help. When ebullience and prudence work together, risks no longer become reckless.
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Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
River Dock courtesy of Christian Collins
Swimming golden retriever courtes of lexinight15
Kindergarten boys together courtesy of sean dreilinger
Life vest courtesy of the author.