It’s Time To Be Fearless

Five values are at the root of every fearless approach to creating change.

The Case Foundation turns 15 this year, and we’ve been asking some critical questions: What led to transformative advances that changed the social sector? In a world plagued with old problems, what was behind the bright spots—new thinking, new approaches and effective outcomes? The answer is simple: to innovate we must be fearless. 

In observing our partners and in reflecting on our own work, we discovered that breakthroughs happened most frequently when organizations were willing to be bold, to act with urgency, and embrace risks with the potential to produce exponential social returns.  

There are five key values at the root of every fearless approach to creating change. I put them forward here with the hope of sparking a dialogue on how foundations, nonprofits, social investors, political leaders and government institutions, and any individual working to create change can develop new approaches using a fearless mindset:

1. Make Big Bets—and Make History

Set audacious, not incremental, goals. History suggests that the most significant cultural transformations occur when one or more people simply decide to try and make big change. Thomas Edison didn’t simply try to make a better candle; rather, he proudly proclaimed his audacious goal to “make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” While there is a time and place for incremental, safe moves, there is also a clear need for social investors to make big bets on big change.

2. Experiment Early and Often

Don’t be afraid to go first. The world moves more quickly today than ever, and our responses have to keep up. Just when we think a certain intervention is working, that’s when we have to look down the road to see what new tools or new dynamics will challenge our assumptions or provide an even better solution. Experimentation in social change can be difficult for any organization. But experience shows us that we need to keep looking around the corner to find the next good idea—because today's iPhone is tomorrow's Walkman.

3. Make Failure Matter

Failure teaches. Learn from it. With innovation comes the risk of failure. Every great innovator has experienced moments of failure, but the truly great among them wear those failures as badges of honor. Thomas J. Watson, longtime leader of IBM, famously said, "If you want to succeed, double your failure rate." It’s natural to be afraid to fail. No one seeks it. But if everyone commits to sharing lessons from failure, the society as a whole will be stronger and more prepared to attack the next challenge.

4. Reach Beyond Your Bubble

It’s comfortable to go it alone. But innovation happens at intersections. Collaboration provides new ideas and innovations, as well as “air cover” when sharing risk. A fearless approach embraces unlikely partnerships that cross sectors and geographies. Reaching beyond your bubble is not collaboration for its own sake; it is a fundamental part of being fearless. It spreads risk, but more importantly, it spreads knowledge and deepens impact.

5. Let Urgency Conquer Fear

Don’t overthink and overanalyze. Do. It’s natural to want to study a problem and look at it from all angles before taking action. What if we are wrong about our intended solution? What if there is a better way that we have not considered? Have we done our due diligence? A sense of urgency—what Dr. King called the “fierce urgency of now”—is the final ingredient that can push all the other principles forward in the face of resistance.

It’s no fun to be fearless by yourself, and thankfully, our research shows that many of our peers and partners have already blazed some trails. What’s next? We’re ready to spark a conversation in philanthropic and social-change circles about how and why we accelerate this approach. And we’re looking for leaders and practitioners alike to stand up and pledge to be fearless. The stakes are too high and the challenges too great for anything less.

Join a free live webcast about the Case Foundation’s Be Fearless initiative with Jean and Steve Case today, June 4, at 2pm ET, featuring special guests Walter Isaacson, Sen. Mark Warner, Tom Tierney, and Barbara P. Bush. Or read the foundation’s full “To Be Fearless” report.

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  • BY Matt Crowe

    ON June 4, 2012 10:24 AM

    Great article Jean, couldn’t agree more!

  • BY Ned Breslin

    ON June 4, 2012 10:43 AM

    Spot on Jean!

  • BY Wendy Schuman

    ON June 4, 2012 12:17 PM

    Wonderful, thank you. I’m sending it to the participants in our volunteer program to assist unemployed and underemployed college grads embark on careers.

  • BY bill couzens

    ON June 4, 2012 08:48 PM

    Love this -work to live this
    Thanks so much
    bill couzens,founder less cancer


  • Great article, and thanks for the recommendation to possess the “fierce urgency of now” MLK Jr. coined. I might recommend highlighting Nikola Tesla rather than Edison in this case, but wise words throughout.

  • BY Peter McFall

    ON June 5, 2012 08:06 AM

    Great Article but bold leaps of faith and courage are not for the feint hearted. I talk from experience

    “Make Big Bets—and Make History
    Set audacious, not incremental, goals”. Have a look at http://www.waytag.com -  Getting the world to simplify addresses, location and navigation by using waytags. Audacious enough for you ? There is no doubt that our digital world need a waytag addressing system. Finding the switch that turns on massive adoption is the big conundrum. Success in great innovations also tend to involve a timing factor where world recognition / acceptance of a need is synchronous with the arrival of a solution. 

  • Great article and wonderful motivation to those paralyzed by the deep need to always do the right thing the right way.  While I couldn’t agree more on the importance and power of fearless experimentation, being a fearless experimenter myself, I have recently seen just how complex that sentiment can be when experimenting with the lives of others.  From an amateur’s perspective, it seems that in the technology and disease research spheres, where failure in an experiment is most likely net zero in terms of lives lost or dramatically altered relative to their current plight, failure out in the field in development and poverty alleviation projects can be quite a different story. 

    This perspective is coming from spending the past four years of my young life in true experimentation in the field, starting a 501(c)(3), fundraising for and overseeing development projects in Africa, and now journeying through a graduate degree to learn how to do what I have been doing in the field.  I am wrestling with the balance between fearless experimentation and responsibility.  The convergence of experience and information and theory forces one into that dilemma.  Any thoughts the author or others with much more experience and information have in this regard are much appreciated.  I am no less fearless or willing to explore, just slightly more aware of the array of potential implications of such exploration.

  • BY Jean Case

    ON June 5, 2012 06:42 PM

    Thanks for the great feedback here.  It was heartening to see that some are sharing the Fearless principles in their organizations and helping to spread the word.  Thanks also for the suggestion of Nicola Tesla as a great example of Fearless leader—I completely agree.  I also think he brings to mind many more Fearless immigrants who took risks and helped to drive innovation in America in the last century.

    I was particularly struck by Jeff’s comment:  “I am wrestling with the balance between fearless experimentation and responsibility.”  I have no doubt many struggle with this and I do at times, as well.  Our Be Fearless principles are not meant to suggest reckless abandon, but rather measured risk.  My own view is that risk tolerance must be judged on a case by case basis since what might be a healthy risk tolderance for one organization might be inappropriate for another.  The real key is looking at your work and routinely experimenting or trying new things.

  • BY Carrie Douglas

    ON June 6, 2012 11:18 AM

    Great article. Sometimes in order to become fearless we have to take ourselves out of our comfort zones, both physically and mentally, to gain perspective. With perspective comes new insight and with new insight comes new ideas.
    The best place to do this is wilderness. By removing yourself from society, an idea rooted in the heart is able to grow. Expand. Take on new forms.
    Wild Gift combines astute business mentoring with a collective wilderness experience that aligns values, develops leadership skills, and creates bonds with other change-makers.
    Check out these young entrepreneurs in the field. http://youtu.be/BFSF6Y_0WZo

  • John Sauer's avatar

    BY John Sauer

    ON June 8, 2012 03:20 PM

    Thank you for this call to action. I pledge to be fearless.

  • Muthi Nhlema's avatar

    BY Muthi Nhlema

    ON June 8, 2012 11:35 PM

    what can i say that hasnt been said- WOW! where was all this valuable learning when we were all young and our minds were still a blank slate untouched by the certainties and limits of the vast majority of society…...

  • Piet Venema's avatar

    BY Piet Venema

    ON June 10, 2012 01:47 AM

    Get inspired, challenge, connect, work together, change, build a brighter future.
    It is in everybody’s interest.I am fearless. I like your style. Good Job Jean!

  • BY Aaron Hurst

    ON June 13, 2012 05:56 AM

    This article is a great reminder.  Another inspiring leader once shared with me that no social movement was started in PPT and this goes to the same point.  Lead from the edge.

    This, honestly, has become harder and harder at Taproot.  As we have staff and partners that count on us, it has been easy to slip into managing to preserve and lose the fearless leadership that got us here. A good reminder.

  • Nthutang David Thibedi's avatar

    BY Nthutang David Thibedi

    ON June 16, 2016 05:43 AM

    Am a South African and am both in Government also in the Development Sector on a private capacity. Thanks for the great insight Jean. I believe we need more of these concepts and approach in our beautiful developing economy. Our history and future perspective is still clouded with fear that captures the previous regime and the aspirant future leaders. Uncertainty of what the future holds for all our citizens is a disturbing factor. As for me, a very optimistic though I know and understand the sentiments of our current state of affairs. Given what we have achieved so far as a country, We have a great potential and a whole lot of opportunities should we be open minded, become fearless and boldly embrace what God has blessed us with.

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