I was sailing this week on a New Hampshire lake our family has been going to for over 100 years. When the wind stopped, my boat was becalmed about 200 feet from Bull Dog Rock, arguably the most prominent land feature on the lake. It was a quiet day and I could completely listen to the conversations taking place between five, early teenage boys as they explored and decided whether to jump off Bull Dog.
Bull Dog Rock was featured on the left of this photo in Forest Notes a few years ago. It, along with 1,750 acres of land, is now under the watchful care of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
To Jump or Not to Jump. For 100 years young people have climbed up Bull Dog, inched their way down to the tree, taken a deep breath, ran down hill to a critical spot, and then jumped in full stride out toward the lake. They must leap out about four feet at that specific launching point to clear all the rocks. Some make it, cheer and have a lifetime of bragging rights. Some leave the tree and either fall down or fail to clear the rocks and get badly injured. Others hold onto the tree for a very long time and then retreat, which is also challenging because of the slope.
On this day all five boys worked their way up to just above the tree. The first boy, a veteran of many jumps, shows them what to do and takes off. Perfect execution. From the water he encouraged a second boy, who eventually did it, but scratched himself a little – nothing serious, I assumed. The remaining three stood by the tree. Teenage encouragement flowed up from the water, “Don’t be a chicken_____, it ain’t bad.”
Then I heard the voice of a future leader emerge from the three boys that remained, “I don’t want to become hamburg meat, I’m going back.” Then he and the other two boys began their retreat. This young man knew when to stop. (I do wonder if he would have made the same decision if there were a few girls sitting over at Blueberry Point watching. An experiment for another becalmed day, I guess.)
Knowing When To Stop – A Risk Management Leadership Skill. I have always enjoyed reading about the leadership exploits of Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the early explorers trying to reach the South Pole about 100 years ago. Like many explorers he often faced “go” or “no go” decisions. On one occasion after hiking/trekking for 2 ½ months toward the South Pole he decided to turn back with only 100 miles to go – certainly a difficult choice given they would have been the first people to reach the Pole. (Shackleton never did reach the Pole in his lifetime.)
Most of us don’t face these kinds of decisions, of course, but in business there are many times when leaders need to decide not to move forward. I think it is especially true when the financial stakes are large, when your organization doesn’t have the human resources to properly execute the strategy, or when ethical principles become evident. Over my years in business and banking I have become acutely aware of what I call “transaction momentum.” This is when all the parties feel the pressure to close a business acquisition or real estate sale, for example, and don’t walk away when things just aren’t lining-up properly because of all the time and effort already invested.
Knowing when to stop is really a risk management leadership skill that only you can manage. Each of us has a different level of risk tolerance.
- If you are an entrepreneurial leader, you are likely very comfortable with risk and will likely either ignore or under-estimate it. You can manage this by having people around you who can see and evaluate risks for you. This helps you make a better “go” or “no go” decision.
- If you are a risk-averse leader, one who usually moves forward only after you have evaluated all the risks and thought of ways to deal with them, you will likely miss opportunities. You can manage this process more effectively by having business development people around you who can evaluate the opportunities and discuss ways they can make the situation be successful. Then your task is only focusing on minimizing the large risks, not all the risks.
As you think about developing your ability to make “stop decisions,” remember if you don’t put yourself into situations that require them, you’ll never develop the skill. That’s why I admire the young man who decided to go back from the tree on Bull Dog Rock – had he never put himself into that position where he could see for himself the risks, he would never have had the experience of making that “stop” decision early in his life. Someday, like me, he will realize what a wise decision it was.