The Small Personal Risks That Actually Change Behavior

One of the things I love about my synagogue is its commitment to inclusiveness. The community welcomes people of all faiths and integrates practices from other traditions.

This year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, the most solemn day in the Jewish Calendar, after several hours of prayer, I felt an impulse to do something that is never done in a traditional synagogue. I wanted to take my shoes and socks off. In the Eastern spiritual traditions that inform my yoga and meditation practice, bare feet is seen as respectful and helpful to centered, grounded meditation and prayer. But the idea of doing it in a synagogue scared me.

I rationalized my reticence with a number of reasonable excuses: The gentleman sitting to my right was impeccably and formally dressed — handkerchief in his breast pocket and all — what would he think? I didn’t want disrupt his experience and I didn’t want to feel his judgement. Also, I was in the front row, visible to many congregants, and I am a member of the board. What would others think? What would the Rabbi think? What would it look like for a board member to be barefoot in synagogue? Better not risk it, I thought.

Then I saw Jonathan*.

He had been given the honor of opening the Ark to remove the Torah, Judaism’s holiest book. This is arguably the most visible moment in the service. Everyone is paying attention. And, as Jonathan walked to the stage, I saw that he was barefoot.

Instantly, I knew it was okay for me to be barefoot. I was still worried I would look stupid, still concerned about the judgment of others. But seeing someone else take a braver risk than I was contemplating made me more willing to take my smaller risk.

And so I took off my shoes.

We often think of leadership in big, active ways: ambitious visions, well-articulated strategies, convincing speeches, compelling conversations.

Those things can be useful tools for a powerful leader. But they are not the essence of leadership. The essence of leadership is having the courage to show up differently than the people around you.

Most people I know — myself included — stop short of what we can accomplish because, simply put, we’re scared. Of looking bad. Of failing. Of being humiliated. We’re hiding, unwilling to be vulnerable, unsure whether to take a risk. But leadership calls us to step forward first and take the risk that others are afraid to take.

I was in a meeting with a number of senior executives who were all blaming each other for the company’s lackluster revenue numbers. The goal of the meeting was to uncover the causes and each person was pointing to someone else’s division as the source of the problem. The head of sales blamed marketing for targeting the wrong prospects. Marketing blamed operations for pricing the product non-competitively. Operations blamed the company’s technology for being too cumbersome and expensive.

Then the head of customer service spoke up.

He started by saying that the problems the company was facing were complex but he could think of at least three ways that he contributed to making them worse. His department wasn’t prioritizing the most critical customers, they weren’t effectively funneling information they were gathering from customers to the rest of the organization, and, maybe the biggest problem of all, he had morale issues in his group. Then he listed things he was planning to do to address those three issues.

After he spoke, there was silence in the room. Then, one by one, the others started claiming their part in the problems.

That’s barefoot leadership.

Barefoot leadership is about acting in ways that change the way others act. It’s about shifting a room, a team, or even the culture of an organization by taking a risk that others are scared to take.

One of my clients, a technology company, was having quality issues in some of their products. Quarter after quarter, the executive team had committed to solving the problems. But, when it came down to it, they always chose to ship a slightly flawed product in order to make their quarterly numbers, rather than take the sales hit.

One day the CEO declined a high profile sale that would have added millions to his top line, because it was clear that the product would ship with quality issues.

“Wait,” his head of sales argued, “We can ship it and make repairs in the field.” Everyone agreed – the SVP of Operations, Engineering, even HR. The CEO was under intense pressure from his team to give in, but he held his ground. Everyone’s bonuses that year – including the CEO’s – were lower as a result.

That was the last year the company had serious quality issues. That’s barefoot leadership.

This doesn’t just apply to CEOs and other top executives. Anyone who is willing to take a risk publicly — even a small one — stands as an example for others to follow.

A short while after I took off my shoes, I noticed that the man sitting next to me – the well-dressed one with the handkerchief in his pocket – was looking at my feet. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “here comes the judgment.”

To my surprise, he smiled at me and bent over to take off his own shoes and socks. After services, I asked him why he decided to do it.

“When I saw your bare feet, it gave me permission to take my shoes off,“ he said. Then he quickly added, “Not that I needed permission. Still, you made it easier.”

*Name changed to protect his privacy

Originally published at Harvard Business Review


  1. This is such a compelling post. I love the notion, and the acknowledgement, that our leadership actions don’t necessarily need to be big or flashy or earth-shattering. Those small (barefoot) steps give us the opportunity to build our courage and create something amazing by both propelling ourselves and encouraging others. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. There is a tradition of Jews praying barefoot, coming from the teaching. “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” God to Moses, Exodus 5:3

  3. Angela McAlister says:

    Thank you. Barefoot leadership – the willingness to be connected, to take a small risk, and lead change. Lovely and powerful.

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