A true risk is one that makes your throat dry and your heart beat faster, like the second before a bungee jump. Though I’ve grown accustomed to that feeling over time, I will never forget the first time I felt the stakes were really high. While serving as an Intelligent Officer in a military penitentiary I approved a vacation for N, one of the most notorious inmates I knew.
Why take such a risk? An Intelligence officer approves and denies vacation requests on a daily basis. Mostly it's routine – you inspect the inmates' background, the extent to which you know them, how much time they have left to serve. The case of N was nothing like that. His father was dying, but it was even more than that. He was also one of my most valuable informants.
N was an officer in the army caught collaborating with the enemy. He was sentenced to 10 years, and had already served 5. When he learned his father was dying, N filed a request for a 48 hour leave to visit him.
My initial inclination was to say no. The risks were too great – if a high profile inmate such as N failed to return, it would get to the press for sure. It would be labeled gross negligence on behalf of the military. It would ruin my credibility as an Intelligence Officer, crippling my ability to do my job. How would my superiors ever trust me again?
Also, N was from a remote village difficult to access by the military police, should we need to extract him by force. In other words, it would be nearly to impossible to track him down and bring him back if he opted otherwise.
The payoff, on the other hand, was also substantial. N was about to reveal important information about enemy activity, a menace Intelligence was targeting pretty hard. In addition, N's behavior inside the penitentiary had been flawless; he met all formal requirements. Allowing him leave would send out an important signal to the other inmates, that good behavior was not overlooked. For many inmates, leave is the ultimate reward; letting N go, if he came back, would ease the pressures within the facility and help us gain collaboration, scarce at the time.
The night before approving this vacation I used a pretext to summon N to sickbay. We sat there alone, and I offered him a smoke. "Are you going to bail on me?” Silence. “Well, are you?" He looked up, and in his eyes I saw a tear of gratitude. "Never", he said.
During his 48 hour leave, I didn't sleep; I couldn't look in the eyes of my superiors. But N didn't bail on me. In fact, he came back 3 hours early. Moreover, he then provided much valuable information to us, and the positive effect that granting his leave had on the other inmates was felt for months.
I learned a lot about myself that weekend, and about risk taking in general. I learned that when you make a decision to take a risk you are ultimately alone. My team did excellent work in mapping the pros and cons, conducting intelligence research, and taking preventative measures to try to make sure N came back. But the bottom line was: "you're responsible; it's your call".
I also learned that you must analyze the situation as extensively as possible before taking risks. N perhaps didn't want to disappoint me, that's true. But I also conducted my own research about his family. I knew exactly where his father was hospitalized and had even visited him without letting on who I was. Since N was an informant, I had tested his credibility many times before, and believed he would not lie to me. I also made sure N well understood the harm he could do to himself by not returning – if we found him his chances of ever getting visitation again were slim, and our planned recommendation to the court to reduce his term was off the table.
Although the risk was real, it was well calculated. When, after all the calculations, you are still left with uncertainty it is time to force your throat to work again, wipe off that cold sweat, and make a decision. It is the added value of good managers. And it gets easier over time.