Risk and Support in Leadership

Not long ago I had the pleasure of hosting an old friend in Saratoga (where I live).

Rob and I became colleagues first, by working together in high end coffee in New England, and then eventually friends.

Rob had worked in coffee longer than I had when I joined that industry, and is still a big part of the community in Providence. He was in my neck of the woods visiting clients of his – he’s a coffee trader these days, and sells green unroasted coffee to folks who turn that coffee brown and sell it to the general public.

Over wine and Hatties’ fried chicken, we talked. We talked a lot! We talked about family and career and what it means to live a good life. It was an excellent visit with a great friend.

One of the things that he introduced me to was the idea of thinking about leadership in terms of risk and support. You can imagine these two ideas as different dimensions on a field, like so:

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 7.53.10 PM.png

In a leadership position, the decisions you make will tend to fall into one quadrant most of the time – the way that we can think about these dimensions are in terms of how we work with our team.

Support here means, how well do you as a leader back up the members of your team?

When someone falls down, when something doesn’t work as planned, do you step in, do you take responsibility for the team? Or do you allow the individuals to face scrutiny and take the blame themselves?

If a member of your team tells you that they have a bold career plan, as their lead do you find ways to help move them along that journey, finding or manufacturing opportunities for them? Or do you nod, ask about their day, and let them try to find their own way with neither help nor hindrance from you?

These are both different ways that we can compare high support and low support.

Risk here means, how much risk do you allow or encourage your team to take on? Do you fully insulate them from the winds of your organization’s politics, content with their low amplitude day to day work? Or do you allow them to wander outside your team’s safest places and experience both the opportunity for great work and the chance of failure?

Risk and Support are not always absolutely good or absolutely bad – you can imagine a lead who exposes their team to great risk could create a terrible environment to work in. You can also easily imagine a leader who fully supports her team in all they do, but never offers up any Risk, which means the support isn’t ever really needed.

This is why truly great teams balance the two, and achieve a state of both High Support and High Risk – offering opportunity (and the accordant risk) when appropriate, and doing all they can to also provide support for the decisions made in pursuit of that opportunity.

As far as a guideline for leadership and leadership decisions go – I like this one a lot. I’ve been asking myself, “Am I allowing for some risk? Am I supporting bold choices?” 

This is pretty half baked on my end – there’s a lot here to consider (how much risk is appropriate? Can one over-support? What does high-risk low-support look like? What about low-risk high-support?

Have you heard of this kind of structure before? How does this gel with your own experiences, as a team lead or as a team member?

 

 

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