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February 2000



Expanding the Possible: The Power Of Risk-Taking - Sheila Murray Bethel


"What is life, but one long risk?"
-- Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Sheila Bethel One of the most exciting things about sharing a Network Marketing opportunity is opening up a new world of possibilities for people -- showing them how what may have seemed impossible for them is in fact within their reach. So why don't all your prospects receive the opportunity with enthusiasm and eagerness? Why don't more of them leap at the chance to expand the possible?

The simple reason is that to do so seems too risky. They hear what you say, and they want what Network Marketing offers, but they conclude that they'll have to take too many risks to make pursuing it worthwhile or success likely.

Perhaps you were willing to take the risk of starting your own Network Marketing business, but are still avoiding some actions that could increase your success. Is your own risk-threshold preventing you from expanding the possible?

Below are a few common reasons not to take risks:

"We've never done that before."

"Nobody has ever done that before."

"It's too radical a change."

"That would be embarrassing!"

"They might take it the wrong way..."

"I don't think I know enough yet."

"Why should anyone listen to me?"

"Customers won't like it."

"We're not ready for it."

"You're right, but..."

"Good thought, but impractical."

"We will never be able to do it."

"It's impossible."

We've all heard these reasons a hundred times before, and yet when we look at leaders who are making a difference, we see that they have the courage to begin while others are waiting for a better time, a safer situation, or assured results. They are willing to take risks because they know that being overly cautious and indecisive kills opportunity. Risk-taking is an indispensable part of leadership.

It's an irony that we are always in search of novelty, yet we can be deeply uncomfortable with taking risks. What good would big thinking be if it stopped short of taking risks that turn dreams into reality? "The world we live in today," Wilfred A. Peterson points out, "first existed as ideas in the minds of men . . . bridges, skyscrapers, automobiles, airplanes, religions, philosophies, governments, symphonies, paintings, poems . . . everything." But these ideas didn't remain mental images. They were put into action. Risks were taken to transform thoughts to reality.

If we are to stay strong and healthy into the 21st century, we must use our risk-taking abilities to create an environment that supports and encourages possibility. When the leader acts as a role model for risk-taking, everyone benefits.

Risk-Taking's Personal Benefits

A dictionary definition of risk is "the possibility of suffering harm or loss." Throughout history, our risk-taking leaders have left us with inspiring examples of fearlessness in the face of ridicule, harassment, deprivation, and even death. Yet there are three personal benefits of risk-taking that will enhance your leadership capabilities: increased awareness, expanded knowledge, and increased excitement.


Risk-taking opens your eyes and often your mind. When you take risks, you may realize that you are not as good as you thought you were. On the other hand, you might discover that you are better than you thought. These are important experiences for leaders. The better you know yourself, the wiser you become. Awareness of both your limitations and your potential enhances humility. "Awareness is not a giver of solace," said Robert K. Greenleaf, "it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener." If you go through life with a closed agenda about how things are and how they should be, you block out opportunities to broaden your leadership and make a difference to others. Awareness and new perceptions give you immeasurable resources for the future. Your sensitivity to others' values and needs increases. You have more courage to take action.


Another benefit of risk-taking is that it can teach you valuable lessons. Even if the risk turns out badly, you will learn more about your willingness and ability to take risks. Thomas Edison said, "A failure teaches you that something can't be done -- that way." Taking risks is the best way -- often the only way -- to add to your knowledge of what works and what doesn't. It's important to know whether the statement, "it can't be done" is right or wrong. Charles Brower said, "You learn more from your defeats than from your victories."

Knowledge itself, of course, has some built in risks. As it expands, you may learn things about yourself that you don't like. You may discover areas of your personality that need work. You may have to take action, make changes, and grow. Knowledge robs you of the luxury of ignorance. If you are honest and don't kid yourself, you can use your new self-perceptions to strengthen your effectiveness as a leader.


"Thrill-seeking" doesn't always have positive connotations, but without excitement, exaltation, even ecstasy, your existence would be very flat. Being involved with people or organizations that are doing exciting, positive things through risk-taking can be one of life's greatest pleasures. We all like to be involved with strong teams and systems that make a difference in the world. Making a contribution, receiving recognition, and growing are the kinds of excitement that are the prime benefits of risk-taking.


If you have enough reasons to take the risk, you will find answers. If not, you won't.

Set the Example  

If you accept the premise that real leaders lead primarily by example, then you must send a strong message to your organization that says, "It is okay to make a mistake while learning to take risks." If you don't send that message, you will cripple them with the burden of perfection. When you can admit your own failures and mistakes and say things like, "Well, I blew it on that call -- sorry, let's try again," then you build a bond.

The leader who must always be right sends a message of low self-esteem and low self-confidence. A leader who won't accept responsibility for mistakes and failures loses credibility.

Some people view admitting failure as a weakness. They think that as leaders they must be perfect. But the opposite is true. By not admitting their errors or failures, these leaders let followers believe it is not acceptable to make a mistake.

An employee of a medium-sized manufacturing company recently admitted to me, "Where I worked before, the boss was never wrong, and there was so much pressure to be right that I was afraid to try. I played it safe. I avoided risks." Many people come to Network Marketing from such a situation.

This kind of wasted energy, negative feeling, and poor morale is devastating to any organization.

The Benefits of Fear

It is healthy to have a bit of fear when taking a risk. To be totally fearless is to be ignorant. There are some things in this world that you should be afraid of. Fear can affect you in several ways: it can neutralize you, paralyze you, or provide a tremendous rush of energy. Harness that power, and it can be a tremendous force in expanding your risk-taking ability. Fear sharpens our perceptions, quickens reactions, and alerts the mind and senses. There are several ways you can use fear to increase your ability as a risk-taker:

Test Your Own Limits

Test your physical limits by taking up a new sport or getting into shape with a new fitness program. Test your emotional limits by facing a family conflict or intensely personal problem that you have been avoiding. Test your intellectual limits by committing to learn something new. Try studying a foreign language. Some experts predict that in the years ahead, effective leaders will need to speak three languages: English, Spanish, and computer. Try reading R. Buckminster Fuller's Critical Path or Will and Ariel Durant's ten volumes on civilization. They will test your intellectual limits.

Learn From Your Past

What risks have you taken in the past and how did they turn out? Regardless of your age, think back as far as possible to examine your risk-taking pattern. What was the first really risky thing you can remember doing? How did you feel about what was going on in your life at that time? Did the risk involve others, as in team sports or a school project? Or did you go it alone? How did it turn out? Can you learn anything from these experience that might give you some clues about your willingness and ability to take risks?

Measure the Risk

How do you decide when to take risks? Start by measuring the risk and weighing it against possible gains and losses. The more you know about the risk, the better prepared you are to take it. Some techniques for risk analysis are:

1) Identify the risk. What is the real risk? This may seem like an easy question to answer, but people don't always know exactly what they are afraid of. Taking the risk apart, piece by piece, will give you a clearer picture of the real risk. A study by the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business found that how a problem is expressed has a profound affect on how the risk is perceived. They described the same problem to two different groups. The first group was told that the project had an 80 percent chance of success. They voted to go ahead. The second group was told it had a 20 percent chance of failure. They turned thumbs down. Be sure that your unconscious bias isn't framing the question for you.

2) Identify benefits and liabilities. Make a list. The biggest payoff is usually opportunity. Risk and opportunity go hand in hand. "Reasons first, answers second" is the first rule of risk-taking. If you have enough reasons to take the risk, you will find answers. If not, you won't. Those reasons are the benefits associated with the risk. But self-interest isn't the only reason for taking risks. The most rewarding risks are those we take on behalf of others. These risks help you grow as a person and build loyalty in the people following you. The term "belling the cat" means to undertake a great risk for friends and associates. The expression comes from an old story in which a mouse suggested that someone should hang a bell around the neck of the cat so the mice would know when she was coming. The only problem was "who will bell the cat?"

Helping Others Take Risks

Perhaps there are people in your organization who would like to take more risks, but are afraid they will be criticized. They don't want to look foolish and stupid. Perhaps they don't know how to give themselves positive reinforcement or rewards for risk-taking. They may even fear that if they do something well, they will be expected to do it again, and they don't want the pressure. Helping these people take risks is a vital job of a leader. You need people in your organization who will try something new rather than stick with the comfortable. You can help them be more receptive to risk-taking through encouragement.

When you were a baby getting ready to walk, your parents probably cheered you on. The first time you tried to take a step, you were standing there on your wobbly little legs, clutching a table leg or chair. Then you took that first step -- and down you went, right on your face. Your parents didn't say, "Well, that's it, dummy! Walk today or crawl the rest of your life." Instead they helped you up and encouraged you to try again. There is a part inside each of the people who look to you as a leader that needs the same kind of encouragement. Some people may have more confidence about taking risks, but everyone needs support in the process.

There are two ways to help others take risks. The first is to cultivate their sense of "ownership" in your organization, project, idea, or goal. Ownership comes from taking part in decisions, being able to accept and succeed at delegated tasks, being part of a team, and being inspired by a leader who can communicate a mission and a sense of purpose.

The second way is to give others permission to make mistakes as they learn. Let people fail in small ways as they build the skill to win in big ways. Take perfection out of the equation of risk-taking. We have all grown up with the expression, "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." Let's turn that around and say, "Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first, as long as you give it 100 percent effort."

This is not an excuse for poor performance. It is a way to take the pressure off yourself and others while trying something for the first time. You learn by trying, making mistakes, and trying again. People who give 100 percent deserve solid encouragement, even when they make mistakes.

Cultivating ownership, eliminating the need for perfection, and allowing people to fail in order to learn are the bases for helping others to be risk-takers who can make a difference.

Go For the Gold

The willingness to take risks is the golden thread running through the lives of great leaders. The world advances because of people willing to take worthwhile risks.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote in The Decline of Heroes, "If we are to survive, we must have ideas, vision, and courage. These things are rarely produced by committees. Everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself."

Do you have the courage to confront yourself? Do you take risks and encourage initiative? If you do, you announce that you and your organization value action and contribution. You are telling people, "You don't have to be afraid to take risks and be creative here. We welcome your efforts."

Your future will be bright if you have the courage to take risks that make the difference between success and failure in fulfilling your mission.

Sheila Murray Bethel is the author of the national bestseller Making a Difference: 12 Qualities That Make You a Leader. She is a globally acknowledged lecturer specializing in leadership, change, and personal excellence -- she has spoken to over a million people in 17 nations. Sheila has been the host of a Public Television series, Making a Difference, and is on the Corporate Board of Advisors for General Colin Powell's America's Promise/The Alliance of Youth. To learn about Sheila's speaking schedule, seminars or leadership materials, visit her website,, or call 1-800-548-8001.

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Reprinted with permission from Upline, Bethel Feature - February 2000, 888-UPLINE-1,