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Risk as a Strategy for Innovation - Guest Post by Wesley Middleton

By Wesley Middleton - January 20, 2018


As I talk to various leaders about their experience, I am exposed to many different styles and leaders from many different walks of life. I have a high level of respect for those that I know in the Armed Forces Special Operations. I find they have incredible experiences and have been privileged to work with some of the finest leaders in the world.  I find they share two distinct traits; they constantly searched for ways to improve their themselves and they are active leaders, active in that they are leaders who are constantly improving their teams and are striving to get the most out of them.  These Special Ops leaders create a culture that encourages taking calculated risks by empowering and inspiring their followers.  In my book, I define this style of leadership as, Violent Leadership.         


This is important because I believe leaders must be able empower their followers and inspire them to take calculated risks.  Empowerment leads to accountability, commitment, and increased productivity. Inspiring followers to take calculated risks creates a culture that breeds innovation.  This means creating a culture where employees are not defeated by new obstacles or even by their failures, but rather excited to develop new methods in order to overcome them. 

I sent a copy of my book to a Special Ops leader and then had the opportunity to interview him. In that interview I was told this story:

During one of my previous combat deployments, I was fortunate enough to serve under the command of a violent leader.  During my first encounter with the Commander, I asked to discuss a few changes that I was contemplating for my team.  The Commander immediately encouraged me to look at problems with a fresh set of eyes and instructed me not to limit myself.  He told me that this war needed my fingerprints on it and gave me the green light to think outside the box.  He closed the conversation by telling me a story about when he was in my position and a specific initiative that he had spearheaded.  The initiative was a calculated risk that ended in failure.  When he told his commander about the failure, his commander told him that the failure was a learning opportunity and that the organization saw it as an investment in his professional and personal development as a leader.  After this conversation, I felt completely committed to my Commander and conducted arguably some of my best work in my career.  The initiatives I developed exceeded expectations and I felt invested in seeing my Commander meet his objectives and succeed.  This commitment and increased productivity was directly related to my Commander being a vulnerable leader and empowering me to be a problem solver.”

This leader’s words convinced me that violent leader needs to be a vulnerable leader.   Why is that? Because vulnerable leaders are authentic and connect with their followers.  They are successful promoting innovation by demonstrating a willingness to fail.  In his story, the Commander demonstrated his vulnerability by sharing his past failure with him.  His authenticity not only developed a strong rapport with his team, but also established an atmosphere that encouraged him to take calculated risks and to innovate.  His vulnerability was a strength and an inspiration to strive for greatness.  Creating this type of culture that exhibits a willingness to fail is critical for leaders.  Followers that fear failure will be unable to take the necessary calculated risks in order to innovate.    

A successful culture is critical to any organization.  Establishing a culture starts with the selection of the right people and continues through the employee’s departure or transition.  Immediately, upon hiring and during the on-boarding process, new employees must be encouraged to try new things and challenge the status quo.  New employees provide a great opportunity for organizations to receive a fresh outlook and perspective.  This outlook can help shape the culture and ensure the organization continues moving forward. 

Not only must organizations select the right people, they must invest in them.  Investing in your team means giving them the tools they need and also challenging them with stretch goals.  I put my team in positions that were purposely established to push their limits.  This works best when an established culture exists that encourages taking calculated risks. Providing stretch goals that allow your team to work outside of their comfort zone, and try new things will develop them as a leader.  Leaders have a responsibility to mentor and develop the next generation to ensure the long-term success of an organization.

Leaders must empower their followers.  While this is truly a top down approach, it creates a bottom-up design that allows innovation to come from all levels of the organization. I have found that the greatest innovation comes from the youngest and newest members of our team.  The Commander empowered this young team leader to make decisions and develop initiatives.  This ensured that he was not only was accountable, but also highly motivated to exceed expectations.  Organizations that have an open-door policy empowers followers and invites bottom-up innovation.  The open door communication design is successful when leaders empower followers within a culture that encourages calculated risk taking.         

Innovation is the key to success.  Organizations must constantly innovate or risk losing their market share.  As leaders, we have a responsibility to inspire innovation and provide a culture that cultivates it.  Great leaders have an active leadership style and avoid using a laissez-faire style of leadership without providing specific guidance and direction.  Empowering your followers is more than delegating tasks, but requires providing your people the tools and direction necessary to succeed.  “Violent Leadership” focuses on the need for leaders to be active and aggressively adapt to the future environment.  Violent leaders are vulnerable and inspire innovation through empowerment and creating a culture that has a willingness to fail.  These types of leaders are needed in every organization from Special Operations units to corporate boardrooms.


Wesley Middleton author of Violent Leadership: Be a Force for Change. Disrupt. Innovate. Energize. (ForbesBooks), co-founder and managing partner of Middleton Raines + Zapata LLP (MRZ), a tax and accounting services firm, and is also an executive team member for MRZ Financial and SKY Valuation. With over 25 years of tax compliance and consulting experience, he has demonstrated a knack for helping business owners transform their companies into growth and strategy-oriented organizations that excel in operations, marketing, technology, customer service, and workforce engagement, as well as tax and accounting services. Middleton is a certified public accountant and member of the AICPA, Texas Society of CPAs, and the Association of Accounting Marketing.

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