There is one thing I know for certain - people always try to reduce uncertainty. Effective leaders help their teams deal with uncertainty while effective managers help their teams deal with certainty.
I was visiting a car service facility the other day and a lady said to me, “I think we’re going to have a snowy winter. There are a million acorns on the ground and the squirrels are storing them away. I think this is the most acorns we’ve had in years because the squirrels need them to survive the winter.”
And I said, “Do you think the oak tree knows it is feeding the squirrels?”
She looked at me first like I was crazy, then smiled and said, “I hadn’t thought of that before, I’ll have to get back to you.”
We northerners are always preparing for a bad winter because preparing gives us certainty. Truth be known, none of us knows what kind of winter we’re going to have. However, when we prepare for a bad one, the uncertainty and fear goes away.
The Black Swan. Have you ever heard of a black swan? They are very rare, but they exist, mostly in Australia. I was first introduced to them in Nassim Taleb’s book, The Black Swan. He tells us that because black swans were unknown to the old world, which believed swans were only white, it found its way into many expressions of the day that were similar to “…when pigs fly” or “…hell freezes over” or “…when you see a black swan.” Once black swans were discovered in Australia, it completely undermined all of the scientific logic and reasoning that had developed before the discovery.
Taleb is a brilliant thinker who has a stellar track record of investing successfully in uncertainty. He uses the black swan as an analogy for what has now become the black swan theory. A “black swan” is something, often an event, that (1) is unexpected, (2) makes a significant impact, and (3) humans try to logically explain and understand AFTER it happens so they can predict it’s occurrence next time. Some examples of “black swans” are the personal computer, the 9-11 attacks, and the stock market crash of 2008.
Taleb’s point, however, is that “black swans” are not predictable. He says that humans are often good at the last step, but not at dealing with the uncertainty itself. He reminds leaders that what you don’t know is far more relevant than what you do know.
Preparing to Lead When “Black Swans” Appear. Since we all know that “black swans” are going to appear, preparing yourself for how you will lead others when they do, is important.
Here are my three tips:
- Regularly put yourself into uncertain situations. We know it isn’t the “black swan” itself that causes the biggest problem; it is how we react to its surprise that is. Exposing yourself to uncertainties makes you, the leader, more comfortable with uncertainty itself.
- Focus on one goal and creating certainty for your team. When uncertainty arises, whether by a “black swan” surprise or when a few unclear factors converge, develop one, clear goal for the team to focus on. When you do this effectively, the goal itself creates the certainty the team needs at that point.
- Have faith you will prevail; remember the “Stockdale Paradox.” Jim Collins in his book Good to Great wrote that Level-5 leaders live what he calls the “Stockdale Paradox”. These leaders are not overly optimistic, they are realistically confident. They articulate the facts as they know them, develop workable strategies, and demonstrate a confidence that in the end “we” will prevail.
As I’m closing this blog post, Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on our Northeastern coast. While I’m uncertain what will happen, I’m certain it won’t be the “black swan” it would have been 100 years ago. Thankfully, our governmental and political leaders are getting us prepared for the storm. I guess Taleb is right, mankind does learn from “black swans”.