Disequilibrium is the new norm
It’s no longer enough to learn how to overcome one-time adversity. Today’s leaders must understand how to lean into disorder all the time.
A great deal of ink has been spilled about the traits shared by resilient leaders who thrive in the face of challenges. Various studies have shown that any combination of optimism, confidence, strong beliefs tied to greater purpose, a sense that they can influence their own outcomes, and an ability to improvise, are traits common to these adaptable leaders. Most of this work speaks to the ability to rebound from difficult or traumatic events, handle adversity or be robust under enormous pressure. While sound and helpful, these theories were developed in, and for, a stable world, in which disruption and volatility were periodic events, rather than a way of life. They share a common thread of responding to, or overcoming, a particular adversity.
In a world of continuous disequilibrium, we need to rethink the theory. In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Taleb suggests that to adapt and succeed in times of volatility, systems and institutions need to become “antifragile”. Antifragile isn’t the same as robust, or simply being able to take the knocks and bounce back. Antifragile means something actively seeks volatility and is actually strengthened by knocks.
Taleb gives an example of a vibrant dining scene with many failed restaurants, where their individual failures are far outweighed by the upside of a large number of innovative entrepreneurs experimenting with new ideas. Similarly, as individual leaders, fully engaging disorder will include some failures, but our ability to adapt and thrive is increased.
Of course, being able to withstand adversity helps to improve our overall physical and emotional health. There are a series of well-documented practices to assist with this. But becoming antifragile is less about finding balance and enduring adversity from time to time, and more about nudging ourselves closer to volatility and exploring new ways to engage, adapt and grow in the disorder.
Increasing our ability to adapt dynamically and grow stronger from disorder requires a couple of steps:
Lean in. Get comfortable “leaning into” disorder. As Andrew Zolli says in his book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back: “Today we have to accept that we will make mistakes…We will be surprised, we will go over the cliff, and we have to deal with those situations…Whenever we saw resilience, it didn’t stem from having a library of potential future catastrophes and finding the right answer, rather, resilience came in the form of the ability to dynamically react to the unexpected, to patch up holes as they appear, to keep things from spiraling out of control.”
Accept it – avoiding risk isn’t workable. Leaning in means proactively exploring and experiencing a new range of challenges and emotions. Experiment more, figure things out and become stronger for it as you engage with the flow of complexity.
Get connected. Research shows that people who surround themselves with others are better positioned to overcome adversity. Connected community members’ resilience is strengthened through access to people and social resources. It is the same in business – drawing upon a quality network brings diversity of thought, helps bust our personal biases and blind spots, lets us see more possibilities, and allows us to bring more resources to bear on a problem. As leaders, it is sometimes difficult to share when ambiguity is high and answers elude us. But building, and being able to tap into, a more interesting and diverse network of people is essential.
As volatility increases, so leaders’ need for resilience grows. Becoming antifragile does not require each of us to become more rigid in order to withstand the storm, but to explore, more actively, the best ways to engage, adapt and grow amid the disorder.
Michael Canning is Global Managing Director of Innovation and New Commercial Models of Duke Corporate Education and helped to design Duke CE’s online and blended Building Strategic Agility course. An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website.