Do we still need leaders?


Do we still need leaders?

Leadership between shades of black, green and gray.

April 15, 2020


  • Alessia Canfarini


It is one of the heaviest flying animals in the wild; in order to be able to fly, it needs a strong push using its hind legs. It has always been considered a symbol of beauty, elegance and eternal love. It is said that this animal has only one partner in its entire life and that it is faithful until death; it is white, but we know it can be also black and green.

It's the swan.

During these days, from a symbol of elegance it has become a symbol of pandemic. The juxtaposition between Covid-19 and "black swan" is something recurrent between the lines of the press and between the folds of society.

But can the pandemic be considered as a black swan?

Let's go back to theory for a moment.

It is an ancient metaphor that expresses the concept that a rare, unpredictable and unexpected event – that can be positive or negative - with a strong impact on the trend of history, is a surprise to the observer. Once it has happened, the event is rationalized only in retrospect.

According to the Lebanese philosopher and mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, "History is full of black swans and they all follow the same dynamics."

Taleb developed the philosophical theory of the black swan by explaining the disproportionate role of high-impact events, which are rare and difficult to predict compared to normal expectations in history, finance and technology.

A black swan can never be predicted, imagined or classified using scientific methods, due to its nature of a very low probability event. When it arrives, it is often not even recognized for what it really is.

It is, first of all, an isolated event that does not fall within the scope of normal expectations because nothing in the past can indicate its possibility in a plausible way.

Then, it has a huge impact.

Finally, despite its character of an isolated event, human nature, with its prejudices, leads to the elaboration in retrospect of its appearance, to make it explainable and predictable.

Conspiracies, flat Earth societies, behind-the-scenes are typical social expressions.

The central point is that of unpredictability that takes on increasingly complex contours, between strong signals, weak signals and future sciences.

Netflix helps us to make it clearer.

Last November, just before the world experienced one of its greatest metamorphosis of meaning, the series "Explained" aired an episode titled "The next pandemic".

There is a joke in the episode that at one point says, "There are only three things that are inevitable in this world: death, taxes, and flu pandemics."

The possibility of the world being on the brink of a pandemic was considered through a very thorough examination of the 2003 SARS outbreak initiated by China's wet markets, which are identified as the next possible starting places of diseases.

If you tried to watch again the episode today, the thrill would be assured.

China itself has been one of the first to notice the need to reconsider the meaning of the term “unpredictability”, which becomes a mental, social and economic category.

An editorial in the “People's Journal” of 2017 warned of unpredictable "black swans" and the predictable "grey rhinos."

We must prevent both black swans and grey rhinos (...) we cannot reduce or ignore small signs of any kind of risk," the editorial reported.

The phrase “grey rhino” was created by Michele Wucker, author of the book “The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore” (curiously, the Amazon headline describes it as “The #1 English-language bestseller in China - the book that is shaping China's planning and policy for the future”!).

The expression refers to major and neglected dangers, such as the 2008 financial crisis, preceded by some early warning signs. A grey rhinoceros is predictable compared to an unexpected "black swan" and, the longer quarantine lasts, the more the chance of the virus becoming more like a rhino than a swan begins to make its way. It's not a small difference.

Between swans and rhinos, we can find leadership.

Obey / Shepard Fairey : Rise Above - Glastonbury Festival 2010

There are at least ten lessons that leadership can draw from this moment of suspension destined to turn into something more than a contingency.

And it will not be the strongest leader the one that will "survive", but the one that will be most predisposed to put this vademecum into practice:

Speak out.

Hiding in analysis and predictions in times of change makes little sense. Better to focus on a vision and win the team’s buy-in


It's not a visionary activity but something that will have to be part of your basic leader kit. That's why talking about the sciences of the future has never been so not-futuristic


It is needless to imagine and locate a direction without preparing the ground. The risk is to bark up the wrong tree, or rather, to mix up swans with rhinos


The mandate is something that is still unknown. Despite the efforts, it is still difficult to apply it, better to be convinced from the outset that the concept of "organization", which we have known for centuries, is not standing the test of the times. Next time we hear about "self-organization," let's stop and listen


For some leaders it is a pain, for others it is a blessing. The trade-off is to create effective and "principle-based" communication, that is, anchored to the principles and to the aim.


As power is nothing without control, innovation is nothing without execution


Thought, action, retrospection. Let's repeat together.


Change doesn't happen once and for all, iteration is necessary.


Better to be authentic than polite. The leader is human and has to deal with humans and the switch of mirror neurons must always be turned on


Visible, connected, accessible. Let's not hide the fact that change also means discomfort and loss

Speaking of loss, when you evolve, you need to realize that you lose something to earn something more. In the phases of transformation, especially the organizational one, we often hear about situations of "win-win" change. We need to know that the speaker is not telling us the whole truth, there are no perfectly balanced situations, there is always someone who will lose something. This is not necessarily bad even if we struggle to achieve it in the short term.

Nothing really important happens in the win-win area; game changing situations are the ones where, inevitably, you risk the most. It is Marty Linsky who is speaking, a professor at Harvard since 1982, a journalist with political experience, who has capitalized on his multifaceted path by bringing back the adaptive leadership into thirty years of teaching and consulting experience on organizational issues and change management and HR transformation.

Among them, the scope of leadership that today is once again more and more central – indeed without ever stopping to be – in an era characterized by fluidity and perception of high risks and mortgages on the future. In times of uncertainty, in fact "we all look to the authorities to provide direction, order and protection".

The highest expectation is in solving the problem, here and now, which often leads to ignoring the true causes and latent conflicts that they can generate in the long run. It happens in society; it happens in organizations.

These should not be seen and analyzed as structures because "structures do not exist, there is only a dynamic approach", with an all-human guidance.

We had the opportunity, as Bip’s Human Capital Centre of Excellence, to meet and interview Professor Linsky, and reflect together on the true meaning of adaptivity. Therefore, we concluded that:

Adaptive leadership essentially rests on three words that are anything but abstract. The words are Responsibility, Loss, Self-realization.

Responsibility is about the ability to make choices that can "displease" the people around you (disappoint your people). Total dependence between groups of people can in fact lead to the arrest of any ability to evolve its potential and to embark on a path that, however complex, leads us to self-realization.

The latter necessarily means losing something on our way.

The adaptive leader is the leader who loses, because s/he can manage the fear of loss and risk. There is a direct correlation between risk and adaptive challenge: the higher the perception of this, the more the organization will resist those who want to lead the process of change. The management of leadership would be a practice without too much risk if organizations had to deal with problems they already know. We call these "technical" problems, which are different from "adaptive challenges" that require experimentation, iterative problem solving and new discoveries.

Inconsistency between theory and organizational practice, coexistence of conflicting objectives, inconsistency between formal and informal conversations and tendency to hide and avoid what is tiring are the four archetypes of adaptive challenges. In all cases, change is only sustainable if the experimenter has internalized it. Adaptiveness is not only professional, to the point that Prof. Linsky opens up about his private life to tell us about his strongest adaptive experience, divorce.

"I was unprepared to manage the situation and it cannot be said that in that circumstance I was not pushed out of the comfort zone!" the comparison helps us to understand from an organizational point of view the "productive imbalance zone", where you lose a lot but you fully understand the value of unpredictability.

Being an adaptive leader means tackling the imponderable, rewarding intelligent risk-taking and instilling the ability to sustainably generate a culture that fosters reflection and learning, essentially self-realization.

"Realism of the reason, optimism of the will", is the last paragraph of his book, and which resonates as a call to action for all adaptive leaders. Be careful to consider them as two opposite terms, indeed, using both prevents optimism from turning into naivety and pessimism into cynicism. Reflecting on one's choices, taking the risk of making mistakes is the best way to stay balanced by giving yourself the chance to imagine a better future.

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