Leading Swans – Black Swans

Ever tried to lead a swan? They typically have fierce temperaments and they are prone to aggressive behaviors, which is why telling them to fall in line is an exercise in futility. Additionally, when the swan in question is not white, as is usual, but black, as is highly unusual, the complexities of leading and managing these rare birds are compounded.

The conceit of the black swan, that is, a black swan event, was popularized around the time of the 2008 financial crisis by finance professor and former Wall Street trader, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Broadly defined a black swan is 1) an event that is virtually entirely unanticipated; 2) an event that is likely to have severe, even dire consequences (especially financially); and 3) an event that people claim with the benefit of hindsight should have been foretold.   

Though by definition black swan events are unforeseen, one could reasonably argue that we should prepare for them, just in case. But, of course, that’s not how we work. We don’t generally plan for futures we don’t generally expect – a rule to which leaders are no exception. This explains how we got to where we are now – ensnared not in one but in two simultaneous crises that we did not foresee and for which we did not, therefore, prepare.

Until just a few weeks ago most of us had never heard of coronavirus. Until just a few weeks ago most of us could not distinguish between an epidemic and a pandemic. And, until just a few weeks ago the idea of being told by the authorities to “shelter in place” was not just unthinkable but unimaginable.

And yet here we are – in the vortex of two crises, both of which are black swan events. The first is the public health crisis brought on by the coronavirus. The second is the financial crisis, which was triggered by the coronavirus, but which is now separate and distinguishable. Therefore, the leadership class – in government and business and, for that matter, everywhere else – is responsible for shepherding us through two crises at the same time, crises which, though they are related, require experience and expertise in two entirely different domains.

Leadership experts should seize the day. Take at least an initial crack at drawing some lessons from this experience.  Ordinarily I am against generalizations. I’m the one who claims the importance of context – and the importance not just of leaders but of followers. But even I maintain that all crises have certain things in common, and that leaders can learn lessons from black swan events.  These include these twelve:

  1. The importance of imagination. Leaders and leadership teams should conjure various scenarios, even those that seem highly unlikely.
  2. The importance of preparation. Leaders and leadership teams should be ready to cope even with events that history would suggest are highly improbable.
  3. The importance of communication. Leaders and leadership teams should communicate with their constituents openly, frequently, and fully.
  4. The importance of prioritization. Leaders and leadership teams should be aware they cannot reasonably address too many issues all at the same time; problems should be sequenced in order of their importance.
  5. The importance of expertise. Leaders and leadership teams should shed so far as possible their various biases, instead drawing on experts to obtain information and ideas, facts and figures.   
  6. The importance of decision making. Leaders and leadership teams should follow the rules of good decision making by, for example, deliberately exposing themselves to different points of view.
  7. The importance of education. Leaders and leadership teams should be prepared fully to inform their followers, so they go along with a maximum of cooperation and a minimum of dissent.
  8. The importance of persuasion. Leaders and leadership teams should know to rely on sources of influence, as opposed to those of power and authority.
  9. The importance of integration. Leaders and leadership teams should be inclusive to bring into the fold different groups and organizations, individuals and institutions.   
  10. The importance of mobilization. Leaders and leadership teams should have the capacity to rally their followers, so that whatever the tasks that lie ahead, they are carried out readily and willingly.
  11. The importance of inspiration. Leaders and leadership teams should transcend the stresses and strains that black swan events inevitably induce by looking from the uncertain present to safe, secure future.
  12. The importance of reassurance. Leaders and leadership teams should calm the roiling waters by assuring their followers they are being led by people of good character and demonstrable competence.

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