The Go Big or Go Home Myth of Leadership Risk-Taking


There’s a narrative in the business world that says leaders must take bold risks (BHAG, anyone?) to garner business success. And while audacious goals do indeed require boldness, there’s an underbelly to this mindset. Left to grow unchecked, that swashbuckling style often morphs into something toxic in the workplace culture and business results suffer. The “Go Big or Go Home”  approach to leadership risk-taking is in reality a mythical approach to success in business.

Buying into his myth tends to favor men, extroverts and braggarts with a skewed archetype of what a “successful” business leader looks like. Researchers who have studied this workplace culture have coined it the “Masculinity Culture Contest,” which often leads to hyper-competitiveness and outlandish risk-taking to prove one’s mettle. When companies use this singular yardstick to judge women, introverts and other lower-profile personalities for the purposes of promotion, this leads to homogeneity in the upper ranks of many company’s leadership teams.

A secondary narrative that often arises out of the “big cajones” culture is that women aren’t great at taking risks. But a closer look at leadership risk-taking reveals this:  according to research, men and women have similar tolerances for taking chances, but women leaders are more prone to take well-considered risks that pay off in the long run. 

Where does this leave women who aspire to senior levels of leadership? How can they use their uniquely feminine talent of making good bets without having to subscribe to a Go Big or Go Home approach? According to executive coach Dana Theus, author of Women in Leadership: A Guide for Women, Their Mentors and Allies men have been acculturated to take bold risks and therefore use that as a basis to claim success. Women, on the other hand, have been raised to keep their head down, work twice as hard and avoid taking risks that will entail “cleaning up someone else’s mess.” Theus advises,  “Women must find a comfort level with risk that balances daring and considered risk. They must also take enough bold risks that pay off through their career so they can prove to those who want to take a risk on them that they are worth the bet.”

“Go Big or Go Home”, when used as the default for leadership risk-taking, perpetuates the myth that “bigger is better.” And while boldness certainly can be the hallmark of a visionary leader, a wise leader checks their mindset every so often to ensure that they’re not buying into a mythology that’s hurting their efforts. 

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