Sensible Fearlessness – The Art of Mindful Risk-taking

This is the second in a series of blog posts detailing the five attributes of Cambria’s recently released framework on developing globally adaptive leaders. The framework is explored in greater detail in the new white paper, Beyond Borders: Developing Globally Adaptive Leaders.

Building on my earlier blog post on the first of the five attributes, Cosmopolitanism, the focus this time is on Sensible Fearlessness.

For the globally adaptive leader, the underlying attribute of sensible fearlessness reflects a spirit of adventure and a willingness to fully engage with new and unfamiliar environments; to risk the unknown and operate amidst unfamiliar terrain, while also anticipating potential consequences and preparing for unexpected outcomes.

Leaders with this attribute are energized by mindful risk-taking, inside with their teams, colleagues and organizations, as well as outside of the office in their personal lives. These leaders are both excited by possibilities and skilled at preparing for and mitigating risks. They are able to ride the tension between over-caution – requiring more certainty than can be known in a given situation – and myopic naiveté – an assumption that all will be well by sheer force of their positivity and will.

During my many years of working in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I rarely met a western expatriate leader who did not delight living and working at the crossroads of richly varying cultures. For most, the United Arab Emirates was a dream assignment. It was a unique opportunity to participate in the operating success of a large, multi-national company that simultaneously required understanding and incorporating a wide array of cultural complexities.

Possessing sensible fearlessness was the norm for the majority of leaders I worked with in Dubai.

But there was a notable exception – a senior executive who had been seconded to the Middle East for an expat assignment. He was a brilliant petroleum exploration and production expert with a stellar career history. Nonetheless, he lacked sensible fearlessness – which wasn’t apparent at first glance. This executive did, after all, choose to take the assignment and move himself and his wife from the United States to the UAE. That undertaking was not an insignificant cross-cultural venture.

Once relocated, however, they worked to recreate their American life in a foreign land. It became clear to those around him, especially his team, that this assignment was a box for him to tick off on a grander list of steps intended to accelerate his career advancement.

And it worked. While he was there, the organization experienced an enviable level of stability. He was able to rely heavily on what he already knew. He expanded his team’s knowledge of western management techniques, and operations ran smoothly. In all, it was a study in maintaining the status quo. His assignment was half as long as any of his predecessors (or successors, as it turns out) and when he left he was promoted to a highly visible executive role back in the States.

Some might say his strategy worked. Yet, in spite of his global context, this executive did not stand out as a globally adaptive leader.

He took minimal risk, both professionally and personally. There was a sterility to his leadership – a “been there, done that” quality – that seemed to immunize him from the vast variety of experiences and people surrounding him.

What opportunities were lost because of the bubble of familiarity that he erected and chose to operate from?

Other questions are worth pondering too: By playing it overly safe, what did he and his team not learn? What innovative refinement did the organization miss out on? And how did his experience shape or expand his self-awareness, or influence how he leads today?

The biggest loss was this executive’s lost opportunities to learn new, collaborative ways of working together. And, I suspect, he limited his own inner stretch – the expansion that accompanies self-examination borne of new and different people and experiences.

Sensible fearlessness is an attribute we look for at the individual level, but one that has significant impact on teams and organizations.

So how would one go about expanding the attribute of Sensible Fearlessness? Here are a few ideas:

  • Practice trying something new in the company of other people – in other words, engage in public learning. For example, taking a group language course, improv standup, dancing lessons or a singing group.
  • Navigate a new city using a paper map, without a GPS. Pay attention to how you react and problem solve if (when?) you get lost.
  • Choose different, unfamiliar transportation options when you’re in a large metropolitan area. Travel the way experienced locals travel and notice your interior experience.

Other ideas? We’d love to hear additional thoughts and ideas on this and the other attributes of globally adaptive leaders.

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