[September 14, 2017] My young son loved watching early morning television and his favorite show was Barney & Friends (see official site link here). In addition, he had a Barney stuffed animal which he slept with until he was about 8 years old. The character Barney, like some leaders today, spends his time playing it safe. For a kids’ show that is all well and good but for a leader, playing it safe can create problems.
“Playing it safe” is a unending message from every corner of our life. From our parents (you’ll shoot your eye out) to teachers, coaches, our bosses, family, and significant other, they all encourage us to be safe, hunker down, and hope for the best. Unsurprisingly, our culture is one where fear and anxiety is on the increase.
Those leaders that do play it safe are actually putting themselves, their workers, and their company’s mission in jeopardy. Being risk-adverse can create unintended consequences. For example, when the U.S. Army cut back on field exercise training in the mid-1970s to reduce vehicular fatalities accidents but the total number of military deaths rose by over 10% the next two years.
“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” – U.S. General George S. Patton
General Patton would have agreed that a little bit of audacity goes a long way to overcoming the fear we face in life. Fear pushes us to play it safe. Real life pushes against such a timid approach. Senior military commanders throughout history have been removed from their positions in war for playing it safe. Doing so goes directly against the basics of military effectiveness and rightly deserves proper ridicule.
As with everyone, I’ve had my time with commanders who would have rather played it safe with their responsibilities than take the immediate risks necessary to be successful. Battles since the Korean War have largely been fought with commanders trying to play it safe with the lives of their soldiers. While this is an admirable sentiment and military lives are precious, timidity in the face of the enemy often leads to greater tragedy later on.
We see this today in the war on Islamic terrorism. Battles are fought with the lives of the American soldier (or Marine, sailor, airman) as the main variable in the equation of war. It should not be. Wars are only prolonged that way. Hammering the enemy with every available resource is the only way to win. Otherwise, like in Afghanistan, the war continues and lives are lost a few at a time both at home and abroad.
Being an adult means giving up playing it safe. For my 8 year old son, even he figured out that Barney was simply too childish.
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