Perceptions of Risk
Decisions we make today will shape our future. It is our experience that guides us. It is our ability to recognize the influences on each decision we make that allows us to make better decisions as we mature. Or so we hope.
The difficulty with decision-making is that our environment and influences are ever changing. Expectations are always changing. As such, leadership is difficult. Leaders must be confident enough to make decisions as they humbly seek wisdom and historical perspective from those with alternative views, experiences and understanding. As we might say, those who remember the past are less condemned to repeat it.
As a risk manager, I rely on experiential data. As I conduct strategic risk assessments, I purposely look for known threats or symptoms that may defeat a proposed decision or path. I look for flawed strategies that have caused failure in similar situations in the past. That approach is part of my craft. But is it reliable?
The insurance industry has plenty of historical failures to study. Unfortunately, we can only discuss failures that have already occurred. We cannot foresee the failures yet to play out.
The mortgage industry, specifically the subprime mortgage industry in 2006 and 2007, is an excellent example of how mimicking the success of many subprime lenders of years past looked like a fruitful and profitable venture. Many banks adopted the strategy. And why shouldn’t they have? Everyone was doing it. Risk? What risk?
But clearly the measure of risk in that situation was distorted. Huge risk existed, but at the time it was perceived that the risk of not entering the market was far greater than the risk of any financial disaster. Clearly, this turned out to be a disastrous gamble.
In the years following the meltdown, the entire banking system froze. This reaction was almost equally catastrophic. No one lent anything to anyone, at any rate, for any time, for any reason. This response was a disaster in of itself.
Except for a courageous and wise few, the opportunity to profit was missed. Decisions were made in a dangerously risk-averse environment fueled by some leaders’ loss of faith in the banking system. Those risk-averse leaders failed to seize a tremendous opportunity to make money.
During this time, I observed two environments: An environment of excessive confidence, and one of deep naiveté coupled with excessive fear and paralysis. It was a dramatic spread.
Leaders who kept their perspective and passed up the easy money maintained the ability to capitalize on tremendous opportunities after the crash. Those who stayed their course, were true to their values and recognized the distortions in the markets were able to lead their organizations through the disaster and come out stronger than their peers.
These leaders, we must cherish and embrace. The leaders who were paralyzed by fear are still immobilized or likely now unemployed.
But we shouldn’t be too hard on those leaders who only now may understand their failures.
Any point in time never seems historic when you are living through it. As we enter or exit the next realm of decision-making, I hope we are able to recognize the distortions and the opportunities, and sidestep the decisions that may cause us peril.