Risk-Takers: What History Can Teach Us About World-Change

Risk-takers are the ones who change the world.

It was April 9, 1917 – Easter Monday, right in the middle of the First World War. The Germans were entrenched in their position in northern France on the high ground known as Vimy Ridge. From this strategic position near the Belgian border, the Germans had successfully repelled numerous attacks by Allied forces.

Over the previous two weeks, the Germans had been bombarded by Allied artillery. They knew that the Canadians and the British were planning another full-scale assault – the planned assault had been revealed by a Canadian defector to the British – they just didn’t know when. Or how.

Unbeknownst to the Germans, in the early hours of that fateful Easter Monday morning, the combined forces of four Canadian army divisions and one British division were about to emerge from underground tunnels and launch their assault on the German position.

The plan was one of the most audacious strategies employed to date in early-20th century warfare. It involved months of training for the specific conditions of Vimy Ridge, weeks of artillery barrages, months of underground tunnelling, and all to attack an enemy that already knew an attack was coming.

From it’s very beginning, this was a risky plan. Not only were the Canadians tasked with taking over a heavily-fortified enemy position, but their own allies had tried and failed at the same mission TWICE. In order for the Canadians to pull this mission off,  not only would they have to achieve something their allies could not, but they would also have to come up with a plan just crazy enough that it might even work.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge lasted for four long, bloody, gruelling days. And by the time the sun set on April 12, 1917, the Canadians had forced the Germans from their final positions and taken Vimy Ridge.

This story is of particular importance to Canadians because this battle, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, is widely accepted as the “birth of a nation”, or Canada’s “coming-of-age”. This battle was the first time that multiple Canadian military divisions operated in a war theatre under the leadership of a Canadian commanding officer, Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng.

I tell this story for two reasons. First, April 9, 2017, was just celebrated across Canada and by Canadians around the world, because it marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge – the birth of the Canadian nation. I had the honour of laying a wreath and laying my respects on behalf of the Government of Canada at my local memorial, and it was humbling to be a part of such a sombre yet significant moment. The second reason I share this story is because it illustrates perfectly the value and techniques of effective risk-takers.

In this post I want to use this story and other information to demonstrate that risk-takers can change the world, but to do so they need three things: an audacious vision, meticulous preparation, and an irrepressible flexibility.

Risk-Takers Can Change the World

World change doesn’t happen by accident.

If changing the world – through any of the private, public, non-profit, or education sectors – was easy, everyone would do it. But the fact is that there are very few people who have a lasting, world-altering legacy. And those people are risk-takers.

Think about it. If you live a comfortable life and take no risks, you will spend your life in the comfortable cushion you’ve created for yourself. And there is nothing wrong with that! If you have no desire to make a lasting impact on the world around you, then by all means, enjoy your comfortable life. But if you want to leave far-reaching legacy, you will need to take risks.

For many people, the legacy they leave is their family. I fully support this, because I think there is no greater legacy to leave behind than our relationships, especially with family. But guess what: having a family is a risk in and of itself. Having kids is a risk, because you don’t know what the outcome will be. Entering into a long-term relationship with someone is a risk, because you can’t predict the future.

Whether you want to start a family, a revolutionary business model, or a political campaign to exact social justice, you will have to take risks to accomplish your goals.

Everything worth doing will come with some level of risk. The question is where do you want to go and how much are you willing to risk to get there?

Audacious Vision

A leader is someone who can inspire a vision in their team.

In the case of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, that leader was Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, and that vision was the taking of a strategic German stronghold in the face of overwhelming odds.

When you dare to dream wild enough to take a big risk, there has to be something inside of you that WANTS to succeed. That desire to succeed has to be stronger than the fear of failure. That’s where vision comes into play.

Whether you have a team of followers or not, if you want to be an effective risk-taker, you need to have an audacious vision.

Developing a vision can be a difficult task, but it is critical to success. Your overarching vision will guide your planning and help you execute each step towards success.

If you want to know more about learning how to create and share a vision, you can check out my blogpost on inspiring vision. You should also check out my workbook on developing a personal vision for your life, as there are many tools and strategies there that can help you.

Meticulous Preparation

The Battle of Vimy Ridge took four long, arduous days. But, if you have read Sun Tzu in his classic, The Art of War, then you understand that the outcome of the battle was decided long before the first shot was fired.

The Allies had spent months preparing for their assault on the German stronghold. Their strategists had been compiling all the information they had on the enemy positions, their experiences from previous (failed) attempts at taking the ridge, and the strengths and weaknesses of not only the German divisions but of their own as well.

The battle is won in the preparation.

Once the Allies came up with an attack plan, they then practiced it, over and over again. Let me remind you that this was 1917. Military maneuvers had just evolved from standing in a straight line and shooting at each other until one side surrendered to lining soldiers up in a trench and swapping canisters of mustard gas. Training for and practicing specific, strategic military maneuvers was a radical idea.

When you’re taking a risk, no innovation is too radical.

The execution of the plan was so important to the Allied soldiers that they practiced that execution as often and as thoroughly as they could. They knew that without the proper execution, all the preparation in the world would be useless.

Once you have a strategic plan in mind – and you should take the time to create a thorough plan – you need to make sure that you (or your team) has the ability to follow-through with the execution.

Once a plan is put into motion, there are so many variables that can directly affect you. There is only so much that you can predict. That is why practicing the execution is so important, because you need to know that you can execute your plan without even thinking about it. It should be second nature, a knee-jerk reaction, instinct.

If you have meticulously prepared by developing a detailed plan and practiced its execution, it doesn’t matter if there are bullets whizzing by your head or competing businesses nipping at your heels, you will be able to fight your way through, sticking to the plan the whole way.

Irrepressible Flexibility

The strategic plans for the Canadian-led assault on Vimy Ridge predicted that the German stronghold would fall largely into Canadian hands by early-afternoon on the first day. Instead, what followed was four days of some of the most horrific fighting conditions ever known to man.

The Germans provided a stronger resistance than the Canadians expected, and the trench warfare was fierce. This was World War One, remember, when chemical weapons were still widely used and soldiers advanced from trenches only to be mown down by machine guns. This was as close to hell on Earth as you could get.

The first thing that will keep you going under such circumstances is, as we discussed earlier, an audacious vision.

During the times when you are faced with your bell on earth, your vision is what will sustain your perseverance.

But vision alone is not enough to win a war. You need to be flexible.

When night fell on the first night and the Canadian plan had anticipated a victory by this point, it would be very tempting for the Allied soldiers, whose lives were miserable, to turn around and say “better luck next time.” But that is not a risk-taker’s response.

Risk-takers recognize that when things don’t go as planned, the plan has to change.

Rather than retreating when the strategy’s timeline was not met, the Canadians pressed their advantage. They continued to bring the fight to the Germans for three whole days before finally taking the ridge.

In other words, the Allied forces were flexible. Their plans had to change, but they pursued their goal against all opposition.

No matter how detailed your plans are, things will still go NOT according to plan. You need to be flexible and adapt to change. I wrote an entire blog post on adapting to change. You should probably read it.

Dynamic Lessons

I am going to end this post the same way I started it, by stating a simple truth: risk-takers are the ones who change the world. Risk-taking is a dangerous business, but it is necessary to reach long-term success.

In order to be an effective risk-taker, you must make sure you follow these three steps:

  1. Create an audacious vision. Risk-taking is audacious in and of itself, and to make it work you need to be daring and create an audacious vision that will guide you through the ups and downs.
  2. Carry out meticulous planning. Once you put your plan into action, real-life happens and you will face tons of differing variables. Do yourself a favour and make sure your plan is detailed enough to survive.
  3. Maintain irrepressible flexibility. Things will not go your way. For all your meticulous planning, things will still happen that your plan did not account for. You need to be flexible and be able to roll with the punches.

Are you ready to be a risk-taker? I’m excited for you! Let me know in the comments section what kinds of risks you’re taking and how you’re planning for them! Or post it on social media and tag me (@kylewierks on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter, Great North Dynamics on Facebook). I’ll make sure to comment!

This post was inspired by a TEDx Talk I gave recently (the Saturday before I wrote this, in fact). The talk I gave was about the importance of imagination and creativity in a world that prioritizes realism over imagination, and I spoke about the importance of creativity in risk-taking. It was recorded and will be posted online (I’ll keep you posted on that).

Creating Your Personal Vision

Check out You Can’t Reach What You Can’t See: Developing a Personal Vision for Your Life. This workbook will help you create a vision that will guide your career planning.

Career Planning

Books that influenced this article:

The Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

Creativity, Inc. by Edwin Catmull and Amy Wallace

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You by John C. Maxwell

The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferris

$100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau

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