Patty DeDominic: When Leaders Go Out on a Limb

By Patty DeDominic, Coach of Leaders 

I was wrong. I’ll admit it now. But at the time, it seemed to go against everything I knew, and felt, as a CEO. 

I’m talking about going out on a limb. As a leader. Should you do it? And if so, what should you do when you get there? 

 I’ll get to my hard-learned lesson in a minute. But first, let’s look at the issue: 

 High-powered and high-visibility leaders often must make controversial decisions. It’s easy to find yourself in a situation where your point of view, while valuable, is not shared by those around you. You might feel it’s your duty to go out on that limb. 

I’m not talking about merely “unpopular” decisions here. I’m talking about game-changers: Big risks with superstars and/or strategic investments that hold the potential for far more than incremental progress: I’m talking about 10-fold, or even 100-fold, growth in financials and personal impact. 

Sometimes the consequences of our decisions can cost millions, and make a huge difference in the world. Some leaders, like first responders, must make life-or-death decisions, so their skills, reasoning, and support teams must be the very best available. 

In those situations, learn what I did: It’s not your duty to go out on that limb. In fact, if you go too far, and there’s no one there to support you, back up! 

Especially in these days of political and business turbulence and risk, it is fine — indeed, it’s advisable — to retreat, even for a short time, to the safety of well-considered support. You’ll come out stronger, and more likely to succeed, if you first gather your A-Team to help you shore up your position. 

 As a leader, you need to get your troops behind you. You need stories, facts, and the ability to persuade them. You’re the one who needs to give them that 10-fold increase in impact, power, and contributions to positive change for their stakeholders and the public. Note that I say 10-fold increase in impact; that doesn’t necessarily mean a “10-fold increase in head-count.” 

 As I’d hinted above, this retreat-from-the-shaky-limb approach didn’t come easily to me. I had mentors tell me to back off if I didn’t have enough support. Ron Heifetz, one of those distinguished mentors I met in the Harvard Leadership Program (whose participants I stay in touch with to this day), also shared this perspective. 

 “What does he know?” I thought at the time, dismissively. “He’s an academic. What does he know about my situation as a CEO?” But then I stayed in his weeklong immersive leadership session, featuring remarkable leaders from around the world. Listening to their stories made me realize I was wrong: Go out too far on a limb, and it will, simply, break. 

 The insights I learned from Ron and the others have been life-saving, so I’ve gone out of my way to pass them on to the world. 

 Resources for you 

 Here’s a short talk by Ron, about “going to the balcony.” I think you’ll like the perspective it provides on leadership: 

 You might also want to check out Ron’s books. I feel his best-seller on Adaptive Leadership is a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It’s about being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of change: Think of it as purposeful evolution in real-time. 

 Finally, be sure to view any of Ron’s Ted Talks on leadership. 

 As a leader, should you go out on a limb for your big strategic decisions? The best-practice answer may surprise you. Learn more in my latest blog post! 

Patty DeDominic is a strategic business coach working with entrepreneurs who are changing the world. 

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