The Risk Factor: The Importance of Intelligent Risk-taking.

Kevin Thompson
Thompson Burton PLLC

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.  John Shedd  

When it comes to developing leadership skills, there are no shortcuts.  There is no magic pill, no life-altering seminar that can transform someone from a zero to a hero overnight.  Developing leadership requires an ability to hold a steady strain over longs period of time.  I’m not going to write about the countless attributes required of leaders, traits like vision, fortitude, emotional restraint, attitude, humility, respect, etc.  Instead, I’m writing about a grossly under-appreciated and under-valued asset: The ability to bear risk.  

The ability to take risk is where the rubber meets the road.  It’s growing increasingly easy to voice opinions on macro trends, on events far beyond our influence, patting ourselves on the backs for our noble intentions.  But…the world never changes merely by good intentions. It requires action. And action requires risk. By assuming risk, we put ourselves in harm’s way in exchange for the mere chance to influence an outcome, to make a situation better.  Quite simply, risk requires people that are willing to take initiative, make decisions and accept responsibility for all outcomes, both good and bad.        

The ability to assume risk works like a muscle: The more it’s used, the stronger it gets.  Risk taking is not for everyone, just those looking to climb in leadership and responsibilities.  We all start to develop instincts for risk as children. We hop on a bike for the first time, we take a chance, we fall, we learn.  The cycle repeats.

At Thompson Burton, when we look at resumes from law students, we’re most impressed with the students that have been through prolonged exposure to risk.  I acknowledge that academic achievement is very important.  But I view academic achievement like I would a beautiful sailboat: It looks great on the dock, it has potential, but can it endure the chaos of the ocean?  

Where does this trait of risk-taking show up on a resume?  There are several examples: military service (the highest, most obvious example), varsity sports, mission trips, family situation, philanthropic efforts, advocacy, work history, theatre, various achievements, etc.  We’re looking for people with maximum exposure to pressure, making decisions with real consequences, dealing with failure, and, most importantly, a knack for moving forwards.

A healthy attitude of risk-taking is not triggered by a single event.  It develops very slowly over time. Whenever I talk with law students, I simply encourage them to (1) do well in school; (2) be humble; and (3) take initiative and DO SOMETHING.  The effort, whether successful or not, will attract the right kinds of people. The world is craving for more responsible people that can take initiative, accept responsibility and think independently.  In order to be happy and successful as a lawyer, it’s vital to understand that nothing comes cheap. Risk is required.

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