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Two Fundamental Truths about Risk Taking

December 26th, 2006 · 7 Comments

I’ve noticed at least three types of risk-taking personalities at work: gunslingers, ninjas, and snipers. Each of these styles boils down to two distinctive factors: involvement and exposure. Gunslingers are the most involved. They are right there in the blood and dirt, exposed to every stray bullet and broken beer bottle in the saloon. When they succeed, everyone knows who did it. Likewise, when they fail, their failure is well-known.

Ninjas, while not directly involved, still have great personal exposure to risk. They sneak right into the heart of the enemy, gathering information and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. If they are found out, they can’t escape because they are right in the middle of the camp.

Snipers avoid involvement and exposure. They stand out on the periphery of the risk, waiting for an opportunity to strike that is both effective and does not expose them to any of the negative consequences of failure.

How do these personality types play out in the corporate world? Gunslingers are not satisfied with simply pointing out the right way to do something from a distance (snipers) or with covertly waiting for an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise (ninja). Instead, they wade right into the problem, dealing with the problem, making mistakes, suffering the consequences, and learning from them.


1) Only Gunslingers succeed
Only gunslingers are truly successful risk takers over the long term. Why? Because ninjas and snipers are rarely effective, and when they are, nobody knows. Besides, they don’t really deserve much recognition, considering their lack of involvement and exposure.

2) Corporate bullets are rubber – they sting but seldom kill

A real gunslinger in the Old West only got to make one mistake, and then he was dead. Not so in the corporate saloon. Mistakes seldom kill or even maim. Instead, they sting. The bruise they leave is a lesson, not a mortal wound. We are frequently as apprehensive of risk-taking as a participant in a real gunfight may feel, and sometimes we mistake a bruised ego for a career-ending blow. Don’t do this. See the bullets for what they really are – lessons to learn from, knocks on our egos that help us to subject ourselves to discipline, professionalism, and a focus on results.

There are many innumerable bad things in life that suck more than losing your job, being demoted, or getting a bad review. Let me list a couple:

  • Dying
  • Watching a family member die
  • Having a disabling illness or condition
  • Starving
  • Getting a divorce
  • Being in a car accident
  • Etcetera

  • The point is, there are worse things in the world than screwing up at work. I have survived a million different mistakes that I thought would end my career before I made them and then realized they weren’t such a big deal. Messing up, learning we messed up, and then avoiding the same mistake in the future is how we grow.

    Guess what? Being a gunslinger is the fastest way to grow because gunslingers screw up so much. Not because they aren’t as smart or as talented as the ninja and the sniper, but because they are involved and exposed.

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    7 responses so far ↓

    • 1 Randy Todhunter // Dec 28, 2006 at 9:03 am

      Nice article. I agree with your points, and appreciate the analogy of the gunslinger. Thanks.

    • 2 dave // Dec 28, 2006 at 12:41 pm

      Thanks Randy!

    • 3 Allen // Jan 30, 2007 at 11:22 pm

      Impressive metaphor. I especially appreciate the level of detail you went to on this one. I always love having a good set of heuristics handy. Thanks!

      I have observed many ways that people have gotten fired or let go, especially in a currupt corporate environment. Generally the whistle blowers are taking a large risk. But I think the key difference there is between those that take a risk to deal with the cultural ills vs those taking a risk with the process or the business. The latter tends to be better tolerated. Also risks taken on optimistic subjects such as investing in new technology tend to be better tolerated than those taking the risk to go after existing processes. Especially the ones that “have always been that way”.

      I guess the key there is if one goes after internal things, best to make sure you are right and use surgical precision, because otherwise failure will be viewed as threatening to the organization. Tricky business. Which is probably why many people choose to leave (or leave it alone) rather than stick around and deal with internal issues.

    • 4 Allen // Jan 30, 2007 at 11:24 pm

      Hmm just realized I have witnesed mentors acting as beneficial snipers. Taking out obstacles but not seeking credit for their actions.

      Though generally someone figures it out along the way and is appreciative.

    • 5 dave // Jan 31, 2007 at 7:23 am

      I think it\’s a valuable distinction you make between cultural ills and wasteful processes. Cultural ills are a very ugly beast – attempts to deal with them can backfire very badly and really hurt a person\’s credibility. Plus, it\’s hard to prove you\’ve been successful (to yourself, and to others). Thanks for pointing this out!

      Also, I hadn\’t thought of mentors acting like snipers, but I think you are totally right. This changes my viewpoint on this. I think to be successful you have to be able to contextually choose the right approach based on whether it\’s your fight or someone else\’s. This is where good judgment (built by making mistakes as a gunslinger) comes in. I don\’t think there\’s a simple rule of thumb you can use to decide whether to snipe or sling, but I think sling wins out most of the time.

    • 6 Information Technology Dark Side » Blog Archive » The Password Learning Pattern // Feb 9, 2007 at 7:28 am

      […] Screwing up is the only way to become a gunslinger. […]

    • 7 My IT News Blog » Blog Archive » Posted on TechDarkSide.com - Two Fundamental Truths about Risk Taking // Feb 9, 2007 at 3:45 pm

      […] I’ve noticed at least three types of risk-taking personalities at work: gunslingers, ninjas, and snipers. Each of these styles boils down to two distinctive factors: involvement and exposure. Gunslingers are the most involved. They are right there in the blood and dirt, exposed to every stray bullet and broken beer bottle in the saloon. When […] Read more… […]

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