When I attended the Asialink Leadership program in 2012, I had one important self-discovery: that I was able and willing to operate in very uncertain environments, with no clear short-term reward in sight. What, in career terms, is known as ‘taking risks’. And that it was not the norm.
It came as a surprise. I had been working almost exclusively for the public sector, this program was my first opportunity to spend significant time with ‘people in business’: I had always thought they were the bold ones, and I was meek. Not so: as it turned, they were extremely risk-averse, and their professional life was one of very limited freedom.
Later, I started evolving around start-up and innovation circles. Now, ‘risk appetite’ was hailed as an essential quality: fail often, fail fast, fail forward. I fit in better, but started experiencing myself as too cautious for my way to deal with risk. I would carefully consider options before moving forward, try and assess risk, and only then move ahead – often saying ‘this might go bad, but it might not: let’s do it’. I went against the grain. By default, risk taking came with denial. It seemed impossible to know the risks, acknowledge them, and still go ahead. As if courage would never manifest.
As Covid-19 strikes, our perception of risk might change very deeply.
I originally drafted this note when reading Naomi Klein’s This changes everything, where she follows intricacies of environmental damage and its ethical and political implications. In this field and context, risk-aversion becomes a desirable trait. It may be worth stopping the oil rig before we trigger disastrous chain reactions for an ecosystem – or the whole planet, even if we’re not entirely certain how big the risk is. Just as it is desirable to stop a pandemic early, and for that, know that things might go bad, quickly.
As these various messages about risk fritter in my mind, I have started to wonder if our common language is not confusing two different types of risk: the willingness to lose personal comfort and safety for personal gain, and the willingness to sacrifice the comfort and safety of others. Many entrepreneurs are willing to take personal risks – re-mortgaging their house to fund a new venture, or take on high levels of personal debt – but may neglect to consider how their decisions, if they fail, could harm others. While corporate actors, some of them, are willing to jeopardize the future of the planet to protect their own personal sense of safety. As for public servants, and politicians, they would rather avoid all risks, personal and common. But they face budget limits in how much risk prevention is possible – and often end up developing costly process to reduce the short-term risk of embarrassment, and leave themselves and us exposed to the more unlikely – yet more serious – devastating catastrophes that fall just outside of their remit.
And so, we might ask: is it wise to dig a well of debt, and curb our civil liberties, to tackle what is no longer a risk but a present emergency? Is it indeed serving our interests? Or should we rather, today, focus instead on preventing greater harm in a more distant future? But to do this, we must be willing to see the risk, and make a considered decision through courage and determination, not a rush of panic.