Have you seen Darkest Hour? You should. It’s an outstanding movie. As an exploration of character and an investigation of managing pressure, it’s forensic.
Churchill’s reputation as a statesman goes before him. Everyone knows about the oratory and the outcome. Fewer would understand the circumstances in which they were forged.
I’ve been thinking about risk a lot this last week. It’s all around. And it doesn’t seem very fashionable to take risks.
On Monday an e-mail arrives from my son’s school. ‘Henry has been to see Matron today. A risk and incident form will be coming home in his book bag’. I’m still getting used to that. When I was growing up, the scrapes and bumps told the story, and then you might embellish a little as you explained to Mum and Dad depending on whether you were searching for praise or looking for sympathy. Now there’s a form and a process. It’s managed for you. Risk is part of a procedure rather than a discussion.
It’s not possible to avoid reading about Carillion – however painful it may be – and the outcry over its failure as a business. Risk is at the heart of that. Arguably it’s the reason the company existed in the first place, because the Government wanted to transfer risk off its balance sheet and into the private sector, getting surety on big ticket infrastructure projects in return for fixed-price contracts and payment schedules. Has the Government ultimately created the bigger risk for itself in then proceeding to bully Carillion and make managing its cash-flow and supply chain near impossible? Some say it did. There’s an argument the Government wanted to have its cake and eat it – and by structuring risk and cash-flow to suit its own purpose, it is ultimately responsible for the end result. Debates rage about who will bid for and build projects now and whether fixed-price contracts are dead. Understanding risk is inherent in any future solution.
I also read the excellent Matthew Syed talking about the criticality of being exposed to risk as a sportsman or woman, no matter at what level you are playing. Only through risk, he argues, can people know themselves. Only by putting themselves outside of their comfort zone can individuals feel the terror of trying something they’re not sure they can pull off and learn through that experience, whether it is successful or not.
Why is it then that risk has become a tainted word? A negative concept? Something to be afraid of?
Risk, for me, is about exploring how best to achieve the objective. It’s about challenging the norm or the conventional and identifying that, in some circumstances and at the right time, taking the route that may feel uncomfortable is, in fact, the best thing to do. And we have to learn to live with risk and to be prepared to embrace it.
Back to Churchill and it was clear from Gary Oldman’s captivating performance that, despite the vast pressure weighing down on him, he knew that the harder option – resistance, struggle, and fight – was the better.
He had weighed up the risks and, as he chooses to sum it up by bellowing, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”
He was brave. He took action that others would not. He was able to assess the bigger picture and understand the balance of risk.
He sat in the chair that mattered. He made the decisions that counted.
Taking risks, judging risks, understanding risks, being able to work with risk – these are important. They are skills and attributes that improve us.
As a communicator working in an environment where risk is regularly presented as bad, I think we need to re-evaluate. Opinions are good. It is the inability to process, challenge or confront opinions that you don’t agree with that we should be more concerned about. We need to educate not censor. Make what you want of Virgin Trains banning the Daily Mail (albeit briefly), universities ‘no platforming’ people they don’t agree with or the increasing clamour for safe spaces. I don’t think any of these reflect well.
What’s my point? Two things:
One, risk is part of life so get used to it. Equip yourself to deal with it. Learn from it. See it as positive. Strengthen yourself and your organisation to benefit from risk.
Two, no matter how big, dangerous or threatening the risk, language can be your solution. Communication becomes more important not less. Expression, opinion and argument bring the value.
What did Winston do? “He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.
I love that. At the time of greatest risk, at the ‘Darkest Hour’ arguably our greatest ever statesman assessed the risks, dealt with them and made communication his chief weapon.
Ben Copithorne is a director at Camargue