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During an April 4 discussion at the Kellogg School, Admiral Thomas Zelibor explained how he sees the relationship between leadership and risk-taking.

Zell Center guest Thomas Zelibor: risk can be positive

Retired Navy admiral returns to Kellogg as a visiting scholar to tell how leaders cope in tough times

By Adrienne Murrill

4/8/2008 - Mention “risk” and many hastily associate it with a negative conclusion. But its meaning, as pointed out by retired Navy Admiral Thomas E. Zelibor, is neutral. “It’s typically defined as the combination of the probability of an event occurring and its consequences,” he said April 4 during a presentation at the Kellogg School.

As a returning visiting scholar for the Zell Center for Risk Research, Zelibor engaged students in an hour-long conversation and challenged them to think about how leaders cope with risk. The admiral facilitated the discussion, which analyzed different kinds of risk and risk options and associated consequences through the lens of his work with the Navy.

During the event, Zelibor drew on not only his 30 years of experience as a combat veteran, fighter squadron commander and his efforts in directing naval and information and space operations for the U.S. military, but also on the leadership skills he employs as dean of the College of Operational and Strategic Leadership at the Naval War College. “When I look at risk, I don’t deal with it strictly as an academic topic; it’s a topic for leadership,” he said. His work at the Naval War College, he explained, focuses on how to build leaders, and understanding risk is a critical part of leadership.

“There are so many variables that you have to deal with and none of them you can predict with 100 percent accuracy,” he said. “Every single thing that we do in life is going to have a risk decision associated with it, and therefore there’s going to be associated consequences.”

Those consequences are not always negative, the admiral emphasized, pointing out a frequent assumption that can result in confusion and missed opportunities. “There’s positive aspects of risks too, so don’t always zero in on, ‘If I take this risk, there’s going to be a negative outcome that I can’t deal with.’ There may be, but there also may be some positive aspects.”

As a case study for how he coped with real-world risk, Zelibor used his role as commander of a three-carrier task force in combat operations in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. In what would become the highlight of his command tours, the admiral led his team from the routine Operation Southern Watch (an effort since mid-1992 by U.S. and other forces to patrol Iraqi airspace) to Operation Enduring Freedom (the military’s response to the 2001 terrorist attacks). Zelibor’s team looked to him to lead them as they entered a time of sudden uncertainty.

“Risk decisions are a function of your character, ethics and moral foundation,” he said. The admiral encouraged decision-making based on the elements under one’s control. To attempt to make decisions based on details beyond one’s control puts leaders in danger of basing decisions on perceptions rather than facts.

The event was co-sponsored by the Business Leadership Club and the Veterans Association. Previous Zell Center visiting scholars for the 2007-2008 academic year included Dr. Lisa Goldberg, Professor Chun Chang, Dr. Amitabh Arora and Professor Chiaki Hara.