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Van Jones and the Culture of Risk

Van Jones
AP
Van Jones

Earlier this month, Obama environmental jobs advisor Van Jones resigned amid growing furor over his signing of a 9/11 conspiracy petition in 2004.

While the pundits continue to fan debate over his ties to such fringe elements—and what they might say about his former benefactor in the White House—an examination of the rest of Jones’ career provides a case study in the rewards and pitfalls inherent to leadership risk.

Born of educator parents in Tennessee, Jones evolved from awkward youth to undergrad soul-searcher to Yale JD candidate. As his graduation date drew near, Jones surely considered his options: A minority student at the nation’s most prestigious law school who conveyed an impressive physical presence, Jones undoubtedly recognized his appeal to the corporate legallati—élite firms who were under increasing pressure to recruit racially diverse talent. He shunned such lucrative prospects, however, and struck out for the ever-tumultuous landscape of Bay Area community activism. Over the ensuing 15 years, Jones championed such Left Coast populist causes as police brutality and prison reform before settling his gaze on the intersection of environmentalism and poverty—the platform that would elevate him to national prominence. (Ironically, Jones’ central thesis on the movement anoints Big Business as the lone entity capable of driving revolutionary green job creation—a dogma antithetical to that of the Marxist radical perpetuated by Fox News host Glenn Beck.)

Jones took a financial risk in choosing to become a low-wage activist rather than a wing-tipped corporate attorney. He took another risk in choosing to criticize, rather than court, members of San Francisco’s ascending African-American political machine upon his arrival (of the city’s first black mayor, Jones told The New Yorker that he “didn’t know Willie Brown from a can of paint, and didn’t care”). And he took a series of risks in migrating from cause to cause, leaving behind previous accomplishments with a blind faith that his skills and accumulated social and political capital would bring him success on a new front. Jones’ developing pragmatism, evidenced to great acclaim in his bestselling book “The Green Collar Economy,” punched his ticket to the White House, but it was his embrace of serial risk-taking that propelled his career in the first place. Seen in a different light in a different town, though, the same simmering idealism that nudged Jones toward the road less traveled also produced the ingredients that made him an irresistible target for certain powerful critics. It’s no stretch to posit that Jones’ proclivity to risk-taking helped drive his now-infamous decision to sign that petition—a risk that, five years on, would ultimately cost him a job at the president’s side. While clearly an extraordinary case, Jones’ saga serves as a reminder that great reward often comes only through great risk—and with such risk comes the specter of immediate or eventual failure.

This isn’t to suggest that you march into the board room tomorrow and announce your intent to strip down and rebuild the company’s business model and, hell, why not throw in a shiny new Prius for every employee while you’re at it. Rather, remind yourself that without pursuing calculated risks, your company will eventually stagnate. When that happens, your more aggressive competitors will pull ahead. A dour economy certainly tends to promote fiscal conservatism—this is expected and, in many instances, perfectly defensible. But as you consider cutting an expense or reeling back investment in so-called ‘cost centers’ such as research and development, ask yourself the following: Will this harm my company’s ability to evolve? Will this allow a rival to surpass us on the innovative front and subsequently seize more market share? In short, step back from the X’s and O’s and assess each budget decision from a big-picture perspective. In doing so, you may discover that the more frightening prospect lies in what first seemed the least risky route.

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Ben Fuchs is a staff writer at Vault.com. Prior to moving to New York, he worked as deputy press secretary to a California assemblyman and as a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune and The (Eugene, Ore.) Register-Guard. He has a BA from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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