The first penguin

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
Recently, I had the opportunity to don a penguin costume and jump into a pool of icy cold water, all in the name of a good cause. I, and about 100 others, braved near-zero temperatures to take turns diving into a frosty pool (really an extra large refuse dumpster) to help raise money for Special Olympics.

Although it seemed like a fun idea when I first volunteered, I have to admit I was a little fearful the actual day of the event. Now don't get me wrong; I very much enjoyed searching for and buying the penguin costume and I have to admit it was fun driving to the event, flippers on the wheel and oversized orange penguin feet on the pedals. But as I turned into the parking lot and saw the ambulance parked in front of the diving platform, I seriously began questioning what I had signed up for.

Fortunately, I brought my oldest son, Taylor, with me so any chances of making a quick getaway were quickly met with a "Don't be weak, Dad," comment. Admittedly, about that time I thought about Shakespeare's words in King Henry IV, "Discretion is the better part of valor." An idiom that reminds us it is often better to think carefully and not act than to do something that may later cause problems. 

Who's going first? 

In this case, the "problems" I worried about were my catching pneumonia or worse, my getting a chance to take a post-dive ambulance ride after my heart stopped beating due to the shock of encountering the frigid water. Although far-fetched, it's funny what your mind will do when you're scantly clothed in a penguin outfit in below freezing temperatures waddling across the parking lot to jump into a refuse dumpster turned diving pool. 

Needless to say, my desire to offer my son the penguin suit to wear so he could take the plunge for me, or better yet, make up an excuse why I couldn't carry through with my jump was inviting, but ultimately, not the right thing to do. 

So there I stood, perched on the launching pad overlooking the frostiest water I've ever seen. With people watching, cameras rolling and my stomach churning, I think I understood what it must feel like to be "the first penguin." 

I remember first coming across the idea of the "first penguin" in Randy Pausch's book The Last Lecture. Paush, a former professor at Carnegie Mellon, describes how he developed a "First Penguin Award" to reward students who took great risks in pursuing their goals, even though they met with failure. The title of the award comes from the notion that when penguins are about to jump into water that might contain predators, well, somebody's got to be the first penguin. In other words, it's a celebration of risk taking. 

What is risk taking? 

What, exactly, is a risk? Risks are difficult to define because they are often in the eye of the beholder. For some people, driving a motorcycle is risky. For others, investing in the stock market is risky. For another, committing to a serious relationship is a frightening and risky endeavor.

Risks then are those things that make us all feel challenged beyond our usual comfort zone. Risk taking pushes us into areas of "uncertainty" and puts us to the test. I've personally come to define risk taking as willfully undertaking a task in order to achieve or attain a desirable goal in which there is a lack of certainty or a clear potential of failure.

Like the penguin who has to be the first to test the waters for predators, risk taking always involves the very possibility of failure or an unpleasant outcome. Otherwise it wouldn't be risky! Thus, taking risks may mean you could fail at becoming the great artist you've always wanted to be; it could translate into someone you care for deeply rejecting you; or you might never become the rock band drummer you dreamed of becoming. But the important point to remember is, becoming a successful risk taker means you learn to acknowledge your fears but choose not to be paralyzed by them. As former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson once said, "Do you want to be safe and good, or do you want to take a chance and be great?"

Risk taking: key to progress 

For those of us who serve in the military, risk taking is not anything new. In fact, it is found throughout our history. One of the earliest examples of risk taking has given us the phrase, "Crossing the Rubicon," referring to a decision that is irrevocable and allows no return. The phrase dates from a decision by Julius Caesar to cross the Rubicon River and march into Rome, not as a hero, but as an invader of his own homeland. A man who history tells us selfishly started a civil war so he could be crowned emperor of all of the Roman territories. 

In the mid-20th century, Gen. George C. Marshall was made chief of staff when World War II began in Europe although he had never commanded a division. Marshall later became the architect of the Normandy invasion, an invasion fraught with risk he badly wanted to lead himself. Despite major obstacles, including an anticipated significant loss of life, potential political risk for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the possible loss of respect by his own commander in chief, President Roosevelt, Marshall firmly believed the invasion was a risk that had to be taken. And we now know he was right as his successful plan was the catalyst that marked the end to the conflict in the European theater of war.

Less than five decades later, former Gen. Colin Powell, credited with the short duration of the first Gulf War, suggests that risks should be taken if they are calculated and intelligent and that failure is not a problem when pursuing a sound, well-defined objective with sensible tools and tactics. Setting a standard for risk taking I believe every leader should take to heart, he states that, "You never know what you can get away with until you try." 

But, risk taking is by no means limited to the military. In fact, the world's most successful sports stars take risks all the time. For example, Mario Andretti is arguably the most famous name associated with professional car racing. He's won races all over the world, including the European Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. When asked why he feels the need to consistently push the limits for success, he commented, "If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough."

Changing the world ... One risk at a time

Beyond military leaders and sports figures, risk taking also plays a prominent role in both politics and business. History is filled with examples of risk taking by political leaders that have resulted in major benefits for their countries. One has only to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Kennedy years or President Reagan's challenge to communism that resulted in the "fall" of the Berlin Wall. However, while politicians usually claim their risk taking is for the greater good, most examples of risk taking in today's world relate to entrepreneurs and their success stories.
Take Apple® computers cofounder Steve Jobs, for example.

Jobs started a billion-dollar business in his garage in his early twenties. At a time when the personal computer business didn't even exist. He has also gone on to lead the field in four separate industries: Music, with his development of the revolutionary iPod; movies, with his development of Pixar, one of the world's most successful animation studios; Personal Computing, with his Apple® brand of product's whose sexy design and ease of use is legendary; and, most recently, his introduction of the iPhone has once again transformed the way people communicate and left an indelible mark on the world. 

As a result of Jobs' propensity for taking big risks, millions are now employed in the computer industry. And, perhaps more than anyone else, Jobs' has brought digital technology to the masses. As a visionary willing to venture into previously unexplored territory, he saw that computers could be much more than drab productivity tools. Instead, he believed they could help unleash human creativity and enhance enjoyment and as a result, he has consistently pushed the envelope in order to design, develop and deliver elegant products that capture the consumers' imaginations. 

Although he is only one of the scores of people who have helped change our world for the better, much credit can be given to Jobs for all he's done to help others understand the paradox that lies between success and failure. A paradox that reminds us how experimentation and risk taking are as much essential components of success as the acceptance of mistakes is a normal cost of progress. 

Taking the risk to stretch and grow 

Much of the progress we've experienced in our world has been driven by risk takers. However, risk taking is not limited to military leaders, sports heroes, politicians, or entrepreneurs. Instead, anyone who willfully undertakes a task in order to achieve or attain a desirable goal in which there is a lack of certainty or a clear potential of failure is a risk taker. And anyone who strives to inspire those around them to exceed their own limits by creating and promoting a risk-free environment for growth helps make the world a better place.

So, whether it's taking the risk to coach little league hockey for the first time, fighting for a compelling social cause you strongly believe in, or stepping into a new relationship, never forget you often have to take major risks to achieve significant gains.

Of course, taking risks never comes with a guarantee. Those prone to avoid risk often look for unrealistic guarantees of success or safety before they'll even consider taking a small step outside their comfort zones. But if there were a 100 percent guarantee, then it wouldn't be defined as taking a risk! 

Consider the last time you engaged in taking a risk. Regardless of outcome, did you grow from it? Did you learn from it? Did you overcome a past fear? Did you build more confidence? If you answered, "Yes," to any of these questions, then you should have a better appreciation for how important risk taking is in your life. 

As for me and my most recent risk taking experience, although I did not have to worry about predators lurking in the icy dumpster below me, I did wonder for a moment if what I was about to do really made good sense. It was then, however, that I realized by willfully setting aside my own small fears in order to carry out this gesture for a very worthwhile cause that I was living out my personal commitment to second-mile leadership first-hand. 

The kind of leadership that compels you to willfully embrace new challenges so you can stretch and grow. Even if it requires donning a penguin suit and taking a frigid plunge to be reminded that risk taking can help awaken your senses and make you feel more alive and engaged in whatever you do. 

Not because you have to, but because you choose to. 

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do.