Backing boldness: Why we should support leaders to take risks

Mark Vernooij
Article by: Mark Vernooij
Backing boldness: Why we should support leaders to take risks

This article by was originally published in Dutch for NRC Live as part of the build-up to the upcoming Innovation Bootcamp, a three-day pop-up program delivered at the THNK Home in Amsterdam.



Our society has turned our board members into uninspired checkbox tickers and soulless robots. Unfortunately, the public's appetite for checks and balances is counterproductive to problem-solving. In order to survive as a society in this day and age, we need to support our leaders to take risks and give them more room to make mistakes, not less. It’s time to back up bold behavior.


Losing Trust

In January 2017, the Edelman Trust Barometer reported the largest-ever drop in the public’s trust across government, business, media and NGO institutions. While scandals and crises have led to distrust towards our leaders, faith has fallen even further due to a lack of solutions to major societal problems such as globalization, migration and climate change.

It may seem logical to resolve mistrust by establishing more rules and limitations upon our leaders, but checklists and increased control will not prevent maladministration. The Western economic model has gone off the rails as a result of our proclivity to stick to existing patterns and systems.

Time for Change

Churchill said you should never waste a good crisis. In 2017, after an onslaught of recent global crises, the preconditions for change have never been so favorable. We live in a time when everything is possible, but not for long. Millions of jobs are disappearing through globalization, digitization, and robotization. Glaciers and polar icecaps melt while the battle against global warming has not even begun to be seriously addressed. We need to innovate and redistribute.

Technological progress brought prosperity, but that prosperity has spread unevenly. Since the Renaissance, the results of scientific discoveries and imperialism have reached only 5-10% of the earth’s population. Overseas territories have been pillaged, the indigenous people abused, and their cultures displaced to the point of extinction. Today, the eight richest men on the planet cumulatively control the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the globe’s population.

leaders to take risks
It's time to chuck the checklist. Forcing our leaders and boards to stick to existing patterns and systems will prevent us from solving today's toughest problems. Click To Tweet

Think different and do different

These complex, mutually reinforcing problems demand quick, and likely even shocking solutions. We must provide more space for transformation, innovation, and risky experiments. This is already possible, as shown by digital currencies (Bitcoin and Etherium), social interventions like Universal Basic Income, and an entire digital government for people in and outside a country, as has been implemented in Estonia.

Innovation calls for vision, big thinking, and long-term investments that are often uncertain and experimental in nature. Examining today’s leaders, we see the opposite: boardrooms where top managers operate in fear of liability and PR catastrophes and where lawyers pore over every memo; activist investors seeking to strip sustainable companies like Unilever. These are symptoms of an anxious society petrified by risk– one which tries to play a boxing match without getting hit.

Taking a punch

In order to win, boxer Mohammed Ali trained in taking punches, causing opponents like George Foreman to eventually tire, which resulted in a knock-out for Ali. Our society does not need leaders who operate within the dotted lines, but strategic fighters who see the long game, try something new, take punches, and win. Innovators with chops such as Elon Musk who risked his entire fortune to realize Tesla, or Jos the Block of the Dutch organization ‘Buurtzorg’ who went around the regulations of the current healthcare system to deliver care.

In order to develop solutions for today’s complex problems, we should ask boardrooms about their innovation budget rather than their compliance mechanisms.

leaders to take risks
Let’s stop asking our leaders how safe they are and instead ask how brave they can be. Click To Tweet

To discover how you can develop your own risk-taking ability and learn innovation skills, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.