Ambassador Charles A. Ray
One of the most important things we need to do as leaders is learn to take risks, and to inculcate in our subordinates a tolerance for risk taking. The reason might not be obvious at first glance but, organizations that play it safe stagnate. Progress comes only when we push the edge of the envelope.
Another trait of effective leadership is the ability to ‘trust your gut.’ This is closely related to risk taking. The gut feeling is that sensation that tells you that the tried and true is just not cutting it, and that something else is needed. Doing it the way it has always been done, while it might not produce results, is always the safe way to go.
Allow me to take advantage of one of the perks of advanced age and tell a little story to illustrate my point.
I came into the Foreign Service in the Administrative Cone (now Management). After my first obligatory consular tour, the conventional wisdom – and the advice of my CDO – was that in order to have a successful career I needed to take an admin job, like GSO, or Admin Officer at a consulate. At the time, we were opening a new Consulate General in northeast China, the first American presence in that part of China since WWII. The first principal officer asked if I, a second tour junior officer, would head the consular section of the new post.
The personnel (HR) system was scandalized. This just wasn’t the way things were done. Bad for your career. I heard every reason you could imagine for why taking the job was a bad idea. Inside though, I was excited about the prospect. I had a good feeling about it, and knew the assignment would be a lot more exciting and rewarding personally than running a warehouse somewhere. I went with my gut and fought to be assigned to a second consular tour, rather than an admin job, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A few weeks after reporting for duty in Shenyang, an American businessman, in a city in the far northeast, was involved in an accidental hotel fire where people died. He was arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to jail. The citizens’ service job was mine to do – success or failure was entirely in my hands as the embassy in Beijing was too far away to be of any real assistance on a day-to-day basis. The phone system was rudimentary, and I often found myself having to make decisions on my own.
Was it a risk? You bet your bippy. I could have blown it big time and that would have been the end of my career. I didn’t blow it, though. I remembered what I’d been taught in Congen Rosslyn at FSI, and what I’d learned from my grandmother growing up in rural east Texas, and muddled through. I’d like to think that my performance on that job caught the eye of certain senior people in the Department who helped to guide my career from that point – people like the late Ambassador Mary C. Ryan, who became one of my mentors and a great personal friend. If I’d gone off to somewhere in Africa and done an acceptable job as a GSO or Admin Officer, I would have been just one of many competent officers in the service, not particularly noteworthy. In northeast China, though, and with that particular case, people noticed.
The moral of the story is this: I could have failed, but I didn’t. I took the job that my gut told me was the right job, not the one the system said I ought to take. I took a risk, but without taking risk, there are no rewards. As leaders, we have to have the ability to take the occasional leap based on our gut, and most importantly, we have to encourage our subordinates to do the same. I’d appreciate any other views on this subject.