Since leaders are forever venturing into uncharted waters, they are, of necessity, risk-takers. They are willing to experiment. In their quest for the new and the better, leaders are open to ideas. Like Peter, they are willing to get out of the “boats” of their own comfort zones (Matt. 14:29). They are willing to listen to others, and to try untested approaches, accepting the risks of failure that accompany all experimentation.
Living things change. Without constant innovation, an organization will atrophy. Even the most cutting-edge organizations adopt practices that become traditions. These traditions impose ways of thinking that become constraints, making it impossible to solve new problems or to exploit new opportunities. The leader is the organization’s primary change agent. Thus, it is his responsibility to identify these barriers and to lead his people in breaking free from self-imposed limitations or “ceilings.”
This “beyond-the-boundaries” thinking always involves risk. Successful leaders frequently acknowledge they failed many times before they succeeded, and famous people are often reported as saying it took them years to become an overnight success. You will never succeed unless you are willing to fail – and to be willing to fail is to assume some risk. This doesn’t necessarily mean “betting the farm.” Prudent risk taking should be the norm. One of the significant differences between the leader and the bureaucrat is the leader’s inclination to encourage others to step out into the unknown rather than play it safe, and to learn from the mistakes that are the inevitable price we pay for innovation, change and learning.
It is through failures (strategic, not moral!) that we learn. Consequently, failures are good and good failures are better since we can learn more. Failure is a master teacher if it has a willing student. The best failure of all is one that happens fast – so we can profit from it and move on before we have invested too much in a losing strategy.
We learn early in life that failure invites rejection and ridicule; consequently, this willingness to risk failure does not come easily to many people. Perhaps it was the fear of failure that was driving the servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents who buried the assets his lord had entrusted to him (Matt. 25:14-30)? When asked why he didn’t do anything with what he had, he replied that he was afraid that he might make some mistakes, so he decided to preserve what he had.
The fear of failure paralyzes leadership. Imagine a wide and deep chasm between two cliffs with rocks at the bottom and someone is telling you to jump! This is an environment that does not allow mistakes. On the other hand, imagine a narrow and shallow chasm with a deep pool of cool, clear water at the bottom and someone is telling you to jump! This is an environment that does allow mistakes – especially on a hot day!
Anytime you begin to lead in some major change (which is the heart of leadership – helping people move from where they are to somewhere better), you will probably meet with resistance and things will probably go wrong – at least at first. You must persevere anyway! Risk and the possibility of failure are persistent elements of leadership.
As lifelong learners and risk-takers, leaders will:
Set up little experiments.
Leaders experiment with new approaches to old problems, and it is cheaper to do this in the early stages of innovation. When you have a new idea for a new ministry or approach, try it out soon. Don’t wait until you’ve perfected it. On the other hand, don’t bet the farm on a new idea.
Make it safe for others to experiment.
The leader sets the tone for the organization’s creative climate. If the leader demands perfection and allows no mistakes, he will stifle vision. If you expect those you lead to venture out and take chances, you must make them feel safe and secure in doing so. As much as possible, reduce the costs of failure. Invite innovation and provide the resources necessary to nourish and sustain it. Furthermore, leaders encourage others to take risks by doing so themselves. They set the example and show the way.
Stop the negativity.
It is very easy to belittle new ideas. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the mantra of those who cling to familiar territory. “It’s too hard.” “It’ll never work.” “We’ve never done it this way before.” Like firefighters pouring water on a fire, these people douse innovation and extinguish enthusiasm. Leaders must discourage this draining negativity, and help people to see the possibilities that change brings.
Work even with ideas that sound strange initially.
The lifeblood of any organization is a continual flow of new inspiration from God. Innovations rarely appear fully created and ready to implement; they usually require nurturing. Give every idea at least a chance. If you are too quick to reject new ideas, you will lose good ideas in the process and you will also discourage people from offering future ideas through fear of rejection. People who know that their ideas will receive a considered and balanced evaluation will be more likely to continue submitting ideas.
This boosts morale and reminds people of the need to take risks. Moreover, good attempts must be rewarded, not just successes.
Debrief every failure as well as every success.
Most innovations fail. Although it is tempting to let painful memories slide, the lessons are too valuable to be ignored. Especially learn from the failures of others – those are the cheapest mistakes! Ask the following questions: What did we do well? What did we do poorly? What did we learn from this? How can we do it better the next time?
Rely on God.
Pray that God will lead you to new paths of opportunity to fulfill His purposes. He is the greatest Innovator of all!