It was getting late. I was trekking with a group of police officers from Singapore, on a leadership training program with Outback Initiatives. We scrambled along a narrow path that dropped away to sharp cliff rocks, pounded by an especially vigorous surf. I kept glancing down, imagining how I’d be able to rescue someone should they survive the bone-breaking tumble and be taken by the furious drag of the sea. Outdoor leaders tend to consider the worst, to be prepared (or maybe it’s just my eerie sense of the macabre).
The group was trying to find a path off the beach to safety high above, through scrubby sand dunes. The sun was setting, and the pressure was on. The group leader called everyone together and announced: “There is a short narrow path above, but it is not obvious. I think we should return from where we came and climb that track. At least we know that path. I think this is the safest way. Does anyone disagree?”
I raised my hand. The prospect of re-tracing an hour’s trudge in soft sand and then contend with the white-knuckle sea-bashed cliff edge in near-darkness was not a sensible plan to me. I worked through the risks of each choice with them: the nasty drop in fading sunlight versus an unclear path through scrubby bush.
“I think what you’re struggling with here is fear of the unknown. Just because a path is KNOWN does not make it SAFE. In this case, the known way has some clear hazards, especially with fatigue and fading light. The known way is not always the safest way.”
It was a turning point for the group. They elected to forge up the sketchy trail and try and find the four-wheel drive path.
Though not a terribly difficult task for someone with my experience, I reminded myself of how unfamiliar these surroundings were for my Singaporean participants:
- Navigation in Singapore means looking at street signs, following the sat nav, or simply asking someone. It is an island nation that is completely urbanised.
- In Singapore you can drive from coast to coast in 45 minutes. We had been walking for two hours on a spectacular coast line and had not seen a single person. They found it astounding.
- There is no ‘off track’ walking. Everything is concrete and paved.
We got to a point where the footpath disappeared. Then we caught a glimpse of the four wheel drive track – just down the bushy overgrown slope, a mere ten metres away. They were paralysed. For the most part, they did not know how to step through bushland – they had only ever walked on pavement. I took a few steps ahead, pushing shrubbery out of the way, and stepping around bushes. They got the idea and scurried down the slope to the track.
The incident reveals a few key stumbling blocks for us as leaders.
- How often do we default to the familiar when faced with a difficult decision?
- How does our limited experience keep us from trying something new?
- How often do we look at something, never having seen it done before, and declare, “too hard, impossible, too dangerous”?
In his fabulous book, “The Light and Fast Organisation”, mountaineer, Everest-summiter, and my good buddy Patrick Hollingworth makes the case that if an organisation, its leaders, and its people are to survive and thrive in the VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) then we most certainly need to get better at handling risk. Sticking with the familiar is often a pathway to certain demise. There is discomfort in risk, to be sure. However, the sensible and savvy risk-seeking few lean in to discomfort to find the opportunities lying there.
The known way is not always the safest.