Playing it “safe” . . .

Recently my 11-year old daughter gave the solo violin performance of her young life, playing Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) in front of a packed house of 1,500 for a Charity concert.  She was thrilled and floated on a cloud the rest of the evening and all through school the next day.  Needless to say I was pretty proud and already looking forward to her next event, which will be a violin competition in Italy in late May.

But then something interesting started happening and for the next week she made every excuse imaginable in an attempt to avoid her normal practice schedule. She complained of being tired, of “post-concert” depression (where did she learn that?) and of course exaggerating aches and pains.  She has been practicing hard recently and does have some pain, but to listen to her it’s as if a herd of elephants had trampled her wrist!

This got me thinking (rethinking, actually) about the mind games we human beings play on ourselves.  In this case I surmise her avoidance has to do with not wanting to follow such a stunning success with a possible failure, so she is subconsciously shying away from the next event.  Playing it safe may be another term for it.

I also see this behavior quite clearly in leadership teams who, after achieving their stretch targets for the current year, are reluctant to set even more aggressive, breakthrough targets for the following year.

But is playing it safe really safe?

I suspect not in the world of global competition with the rapid rise of companies from nowhere out to grab your customers and eat your lunch.  Another way of looking at it is called “playing not to lose”, a tendency which holds us back from putting forth all our energy and creativity.  Larry Wilson and his son wrote a very good little book on the subject some years back, Play to Win.  It’s available on Amazon and is a very good overview of the concept.

We all have a desire to “play it safe”, or even more insidious, just safe enough to get by.  So how do we get our organization off this slippery slope?

I suggest the best way is to talk about it, openly.  Talk about what it took to win last year, what we learned, how we can take that learning and make it “the new normal”.  How we can leverage that learning to go even further this coming year.  Let’s open up the debate inside of our organizations, open it up to all employees.  Together we can reinforce and support each other to achieve even greater breakthroughs year after year.  We are all on this journey together.  Remember, big challenges create big people!

That’s what we are doing with our daughter, opening up the discussion about success and failure, how much she learned about her skills and herself in the run-up to the Charity concert.  And most importantly letting her know that she doesn’t have to do it all alone.  We are all on this journey together.

Tight Lines . . .

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to Playing it “safe” . . .

  1. Pingback: Hard work, Disappointment and Learning Life Lessons | John R Childress . . . rethinking leadership

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