Leading Ourselves First

24 May 2022

Leading Ourselves First

With so much disruption in the external environment, it’s hard for a leader not to stay “on the wall.” Many of us feel it’s our responsibility to stand watch, to protect our organizations from external threats—cybercriminals, natural disasters, lawsuits. But what if the threat is us?

“The greatest risk to us is us,” explained Anna Butrico, Chief of Staff, Odgers Berndtson U.S. and co-author with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. Army (Ret.) of Risk: A User’s Guide

"We spend energy and burn calories on factors outside of our control, when we should instead focus on mitigating our vulnerabilities."

"It’s critical for leaders to diagnose, and strengthen, their team’s weaknesses to deal with the unknown.”

Our Leadership Confidence Index 2022 showed only 23% of respondents consider the leaders in their organization to be risk takers.

So how can a leader build up their courage and take the right risks?

  1. Reflect
    Allow time in your week for reflection. Spend time alone. Or work with an executive coach. In Risk: A User’s Guide, Anna and Gen. McChrystal offer a four-step framework for mitigating risk: Detect, Assess, Respond, and Learn. Teams have to detect the threats in their environment, assess their vulnerabilities to react to the threat, respond effectively, and then learn from the process. Once you’ve responded, it’s tempting to brush it off and move on to the next threat. Take the time to reflect on what you have learned so you can improve as a leader.
  2. Listen
    Know what you don’t know and build a team around your areas of vulnerability. Are you not a strong communicator? Ensure you have a chief of staff who is. (And listen to her counsel.) Maybe you are struggling to wrap your mind around what blockchain means for your business—bring in a leader who gets it (and read my colleague Jake’s article about how to find them).

    Listen also to your broader organization. Implement pulse surveys. Walk the halls. Host town halls. Zoom with people. Visit company locations. You will learn so much about what is really happening in your organization. And you will build credibility.
  3. Learn
    Across every sector, it’s important for leaders to read journal articles and books and attend conferences to learn more about your area of expertise. At Odgers Berndtson U.S., continuing education is an important priority. As a firm, we have established the Odgers Academy to develop and hone skills and attributes that our associates need to continue to grow personally and professionally.

    "We created Odgers Academy so we can train the next generation of leaders in our organization to find leaders for our clients," explained Steve Potter, CEO, Odgers Berndtson U.S. “We want to build a central repository of best practices and resources and give our people the opportunity to develop professionally.”
  4. Open the aperture
    The safest thing for organizations to do when looking for a leader is to go with what they know. But there is no longer a place in any industry for the risk-averse: by refusing to evolve, you risk either stasis or atrophy. And you will lose great talent to the competition. There is indeed a war for talent, but there is so much more talent if you have the courage to open the aperture.

    Look beyond subject matter expertise to see the whole leader. You might find someone who has faced a similar challenge in a complementary industry. There is also great value in taking on a new hire who–maybe because of social injustice–hasn’t been given the opportunities they deserve.


“Leadership is critical for organizations mitigating risk,” Anna explained. “We all have areas of vulnerability - that’s inevitable. 
Great leaders have the courage and ability to acknowledge these weaknesses head-on, and develop systems, teams, and tools to overcome them - so they’re best positioned for the next threat coming their way.”