On the blog this month, we’re exploring risk: how it shows up in our personal and professional lives, the roles it plays in leadership, and lessons we can learn from it. Today, we take a look at the tug-of-war present when balancing what we need with what we desire—the core tension between safety and purpose.


I knew in fourth grade, when I wrote my first book (about a dragon who never heard of fire), that I was destined to be a writer. But years later, when I declared myself an English major in college and my (fiscally responsible) father practically threatened to disown me, I admit, I doubted that destiny just a bit.

The core tension we grapple with as human beings—especially as adults, and most especially as leaders—is the interplay of safety and purpose in our lives. How do we satisfy our needs for protection, financial security, and basic resources while pursuing the call to a higher vocation? In other words, how can I pay my mortgage and keep my health insurance while fulfilling my dream of playing in a rock band?

Too often this complex dance is reduced to the concept of “risk versus reward,” but, like most oversimplifications, that misses the point. Purpose and safety are not two diametrically opposed, warring factions that demand an all-or-nothing allegiance. They are ends of a spectrum.

The Core Tension Explained

In our work with leaders, this core tension between safety and purpose serves as the primary lens through which we explore and assess a leader’s behaviors, competencies, and efficacy. More important, it serves as a framework for each leader to continually reevaluate and evolve their mindset.

Orienting ourselves toward safety—seeking it, finding refuge in it—traps us in our comfort zone and perpetuates a cycle spurred by threat, fear, and reaction. We call this the Reactive structure.

Orienting ourselves toward purpose—identifying it, claiming it—generates momentum that helps us gain clarity, grow in our passion, and take deliberate steps toward the life we envision. We call this the Creative structure.

Great leaders discern their purpose, then build their lives around it. Take Steve Jobs. He saw Apple as a company that could utilize powerful technology to create intuitive and easy-to-use tools, making computing accessible for everyday people. He recognized that as his purpose and revolutionized the tech industry as a result. Today, Apple products are more ubiquitous than ever. The number of iOS devices sold crossed the 2 billion mark in 2018, and as of July 2023, there are nearly 1.5 billion iPhone users—more than 20% of smartphone users worldwide.

Did Jobs achieve his vision without risk? Absolutely not. In fact, he was famously known for his willingness to take risks, like when he replaced nearly everyone on his board of directors, insisted on a one-button mouse, or previewed the iPhone before it was ready and launched it without an option for a keypad, trusting that consumers would embrace a touchscreen-only device. Not all of his risks paid off. (Anyone remember the round “hockey puck” iMac mice of the late ’90s?) But Jobs oriented himself toward his purpose and, with each risk taken, gained clarity, grew in his passion, and took another step closer to realizing his vision.

You can do this, too, in your own life and in your own leadership.

Take the Reins

When you identify your purpose, that drive or desire to make your life matter which comes from a place deep within or beyond yourself, and you align yourself with that purpose, that’s where the magic happens. With that alignment, you power up the aspects of your personality, skills, and capabilities that make you a compelling, inspiring, and effective leader. Keeping that purpose firmly in your sights, your natural curiosity and excitement drive your day-to-day action. Simply put, with your passion ignited, you take action with intention, focused on bringing your vision to life.

You’ve heard the expression, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Orienting toward purpose acknowledges—and embraces—the risk inherent in all growth. And the pursuit of great leadership demands casting off from the dock and heading out to open sea. If you stay on purpose, you may be scared, but at least you’ll be at the helm.

Watch Leadership Circle Co-Founder and Chief Knowledge Officer Bob Anderson take a deep dive into the tension between safety and purpose.

Sarah Stall

Author Sarah Stall

More posts by Sarah Stall