Courage and Risk: How far can we manage risk?

By David Pappalardo

“In war, one must accept great dangers, if one wants to achieve great success.”

– Moltke the Elder

Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist has significance in how you define risk. For the former, “taking a risk” will be synonymous with entrepreneurship, and you will likely see it as a tool, an opportunity. Those in the latter category will insist on the possibility of the underlying danger. As Churchill highlighted, when faced with risks a “pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity [while] an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” In any case risk is consubstantial with human activity and in particular with military action which, as General de Gaulle reminds us, “is the essential aspect of contingency.” In both instances the notion of uncertainty is central, and risk management essentially relies on the management of this uncertainty; where rationality is necessarily limited, and where courage is essential in order not to remain paralyzed when faced with the necessity of action.

Risk management first involves the assessment of its relationship to gains, which is necessarily impaired by cognitive biases. Therefore, we must first reinstate the unforeseen in our intellectual framework, then consider whether risk is a winning tool to cope with uncertainty, not to hamper military action. Finally, risk management implies subsidiarity, which relies on a courage balanced between audacity and temperance.

A calculated risk with limited rationality

Every human activity carries a risk that we can define as the eventuality of a future event which does not depend exclusively on the will of the parties. This definition implies the possibility of danger or opportunity; side-effects may be negative or positive. Risk management consists first of naming and analyzing “risks-hazards” and then, mitigating them to an acceptable or tolerable level. Military action assumes, according to the formula of General Beaufre, a dialectic, a positive evaluation “between the hope of success and the fear of the risks incurred.” It is therefore necessary to confront the risks taken and the expected gains by acting along two axes: probability and impact.

In addition, as volatility often dominates decision-making, a leader must constantly assess ends, means, risks and circumstances. Means must be coherent to the challenge and risk must be proportionate to the potential gains. As Jomini tells us, “a general may attempt with a Mack as his antagonist what it would be madness to with a Napoleon.” Risk assessment is therefore a reciprocal and permanent evaluation structure, a mental scheme that must be applied at each stage. This involves refusing preconceived positions (a priori decision) or culpable casualness (acceptance of an unnecessary risk).

However, a formalized approach to operational risk management must not dodge the fact that our rationality is necessarily limited. There are borders to its evaluation since we often act in denial of two psychological biases that economists are familiar with: habituation and risk aversion. First, risk is not perceived absolutely but in relation to an expectation, a context that is characterized by a ratchet effect. We have become accustomed to a sanitized society and it is particularly difficult to get out of our comfort zones, our familiar patterns of thought. On the other hand, our aversion to risk is much stronger than the prospect of profit, which can lead us to adopt conservative postures. Thus, risk management requires a rigorous evaluation of the relationship with the gain. Further, whatever the formalism established, the armed forces must not ignore the limits of practice in the face of our cognitive biases and our relationship to uncertainty.

“Reinstating the unforeseen in our intellectual framework”

We have just seen that managing risk is the management of uncertainty, often perceived as a negative side-effect. In France, first a Cartesian country par excellence, uncertainty is regarded as anxiety-provoking. This is in contrast to Anglo-Saxon rooted countries generally considered as more tolerant of risk. Since, as Thérèse Delpech states, “anxiety forbids us to hear anything other than our inner voices,” we can become confined  precisely by the excess of concepts, formalism, and analysis which rejects the idea that we may be surprised. Thus, it seems that it would be an error to give too much credence to these inner voices and to forget “common sense” and pragmatism in risk management.

By the same token, our modern society creates the illusion of a certain form of invulnerability, which only increases the probability of being surprised. This reinforces the psychological phenomenon of habituation presented above. According to Colonel Jacques de Montgros:

the unexpected detaches itself [progressively] from our daily intellectual reference: the principle of caution maintains the illusion in the short term that our society is structurally protected against risk generated by uncertainty… if surprise is the dialectic of representations and emotions, then controlling its effects consists simultaneously in distrusting our representations and controlling our emotions. It’s more a question to exercise temperance which leads to the laying out of intangible rules and to act, than to exercise strictly the principle of caution which can lead to inaction.”

It is therefore necessary to reinstate the unforeseen in our intellectual framework and to assume the risks for action. Risk management should not hinder us as it is should be geared toward mastering uncertainty and the condition of all success. “Of all mistakes,” Foch teaches us speaking of the safety-surprise construct, “only one is disgraceful: inaction.”

Decide with courage at the right level

Finally, action passes through decision to accept risk in order to reach the level of the responsible authority. With this in mind, decision must respond to a quality: courage; and a paradigm: subsidiarity. Deciding in the dark requires courage to the extent, as we have just seen, that it is impossible to master exhaustively the consequences of our decision. By deciding, we expose ourselves, we commit ourselves, terms that are all synonymous with “risk”. This courage must be multifaceted: Aristotle defines it as “the Golden Mean between cowardice and recklessness.” It therefore requires as much audacity, firmness of heart in the face of danger as it does patience, perseverance and stoicism. It is consequently inseparable from responsibility. Boldness is one of the factors of operational superiority. It is necessary to relearn risk taking in order to go forward since risk is the condition of all success. This implies accepting the idea that one can be mistaken. General Henri Bentegeat, a former Chairman of the French Joint chief of staff, summarized it in these terms: “The prohibition of all audacity will have an impact on the success of the mission and the risks will be increased for our men if the leader in battle hesitates to make a decision, if his hand drops the sword to open the umbrella.”

And so the leader’s first duty is to lead, but at the right level of decision. If all authority is subsidiary, this aphorism does not, unfortunately, resist the examination of facts. Managing risk at best implies re-establishing this principle of subsidiarity, which has been undermined by risk aversion and by the strong centralization of our decision-making process. Today, the decision-making process is concentrated among a very limited number of people. Of course, a leader can delegate everything except his responsibility; however, “if co-mandare means entrusting and transmitting,” as a French officer recalls, “one must accept a certain dispossession.” Failing that risks interference from above that disempowers those below. Indeed, junior leaders tend to report too much information to senior leaders as it costs little effort compared to what they can gain in return: “alibis”. Therefore, a hitch in the decision-making process appears since too much information overwhelms senior leaders while subordinates become unwilling to decide. De Gaulle frames it magnificently in this sentence: “Whether from the top or from the bottom, if initiative, the desire to be responsible, and courage disappear, the army will be paralyzed.” All the ingredients of the answer to the question are contained therein: we must manage risk to avoid inertia and paralysis in our assigned mission.

In summary, “zero” risk is a mind-numbing utopia. Risk taking is part of the DNA of the armed forces. How far can we manage risk? This is a question of circumstances to be sure, to which we must be persuaded there is no single answer. This should not preclude the existence of the essentials: on one hand, the balanced alliance between formal analysis and psychology;  on the other hand, the reinstatement of uncertainty in our intellectual frame of reference as well as of risk as a condition of all success. This requires courage, strength, and self-control at the most appropriate level of action.

David Pappalardo is a French Air Force Officer and student at Air Command and Staff College. A multirole Rafale pilot, he is the former commander of the 2/30 fighter Squadron “Normandie-Niémen”. David has been involved in several operations over Africa, Afghanistan, and Levant since 2007.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Ministere Des Armees, the French Government, or the United States Air Force.

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