Pursuing one goal to the utter exclusion of all others is not to make a choice but to run from it. It’s not leadership; it’s abdication.
But there’s a companion quality you’ll need to be the leaders you can be. That’s the willingness to take risks. Not reckless ones, but the risks that still remain after all the evidence has been considered.
Great societies before us tended to look backward for their inspiration, to locate their golden ages in the past. Here our eyes have always been forward. Now signs abound of Americans losing that eagerness to move ahead boldly.
Before the virus visited us, there were already troubling signs that fearfulness was beginning to erode the spirit of adventure, the willingness to take considered risks, on which this nation’s greatness was built and from which all progress originates. Rates of business startups, moving in pursuit of a better job, or the strongest of all bets on the future, having children, all have fallen sharply in recent years. And now there are warnings that the year 2020 may have weakened that spirit further.
As school started again at her campus, the provost of the University of Kansas sent a message to her students and colleagues that is relevant far beyond the present day or the recent pandemic. “In times of high anxiety,” she wrote, “it is human nature to crave certainty for the safety it provides. The problem with craving certainty is that it is a false hope; it is a craving that can never fully be met.”
She quoted the astronomer Carl Sagan: “The history of science teaches us that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes … with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.”
Maybe the great historian Jacques Barzun summed it up best: “The last degree of caution is cowardice.”
Certainty is an illusion. Perfect safety is a mirage. Zero is always unattainable, except in the case of absolute zero where, as you remember, all motion and life itself stop.
We expect, no, we know, that you will tackle leadership’s challenges as they present themselves to you. You’re taking with you the tools to weigh alternatives, balance priorities, assess relative risks. All you’ll need is the courage to act on the conclusions you reach.
Now take that readiness into a fearful, timid world crying for direction and boldness, where the biggest risk of all is that we stop taking risks at all.
An inspiring commencement remarks From Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, published in The Federalist.