An Anti-Fragile Approach to Leadership
By Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair Luft, Canadian Armed Forces
COVID-19 has exposed the fragility and uncertainty of a complex, modern world. Considering the number of recent geopolitical analyses (such as the latest Global Strategic Trends) that identify uncertainty as a rising threat, the lesson was unnecessary. Unfortunately, despite growing calls to address increased uncertainty, there is an absence of practical guidance about how to do so.
Scholar and former trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s answer is to become anti-fragile. In his five-volume Incerto series, Taleb argues that systems should be designed to get better when exposed to, “…random events, unpredictable shocks, stressors, and volatility.” While Taleb identifies a number of strategies to develop anti-fragility, like increasing optionality and ‘smallness,’ these approaches are generally non-domain specific, leaving readers to wonder how to apply the concept in other areas.
So what would anti-fragile leadership look like? Based on Taleb’s work, an anti-fragile approach to leadership would have five parts: focus, a commitment to confronting reality, self-awareness, risk mitigation and adaptation.
As a strategy, anti-fragile leadership aims to prepare teams and organisations to improve when exposed to adverse events. It goes beyond resilience, or bouncing back to some predefined level. Whereas resilience involves recovering from adversity, anti-fragility implies recovery and improvement.
In a way, anti-fragile leadership is akin to ‘branching and pruning,’ the evolutionary process of successful organizations as described in Built to Last by business consultant Jim Collins: trying new things in the face of uncertainty, keeping those that work and discarding those that do not. This exposure to uncertainty is not done recklessly, however, but rather through disciplined focus, which is the first component of an anti-fragile approach to leadership.
A Sense of Purpose
Developing anti-fragility starts by understanding what is important. This imperative is captured in the principle of war, ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’, or ensuring every action is underlined by a single, attainable and clearly defined goal. This principle is often considered the most important because it provides focus and, without focus, all other activity risks being wasted effort.
Focus is also a central theme of Taleb’s works, found in his calls to ignore the irrelevant and concentrate on the relevant. Likewise, Taleb’s description of distilled thinking, or rational thought based on information stripped of meaningless clutter, involves focusing on the significant, which can only occur if there is a focal point to coordinate effort.
From a leadership standpoint, focus is important because teams have finite time, resources and capabilities with which to accomplish their goals. Since demands invariably outstrip resources – a condition exacerbated by uncertainty – wasted or conflicted efforts should be minimized to ensure that actions reinforce what matters most. This is especially critical in a contemporary environment characterised by massive amounts of data, much of which is noise, not signal. Today, as Malcolm Gladwell explains in Blink, more information does not necessarily translate to better understanding. Leaders can help their teams concentrate on what is important by providing focus.
Focus can also provide something more intangible, namely, motivation. The military profession is often characterized by privation, distress and hardship – suffering, in other words. Recalling Viktor Frankl’s observation that “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning” an anti-fragile leader can provide that meaning by identifying and communicating what is important, a key reason underscoring the importance of commander’s intent in mission tactics and manoeuvre warfare.
See the World for What It Is
For focus to be fully effective, however, it must be grounded in an accurate view of the environment. Imagine focus as the orienting lines of a compass – it lets a team know if they are headed in the chosen direction. If, however, the metaphorical map being used to navigate is incomplete, flawed, or upside down, then even the most rigid focus may only serve to get a team lost, albeit making good time. Unfortunately, due to perceptual and cognitive biases that affect human observations, seeing the world for what it is remains easier said than done.
Taleb describes several of these biases, like survivorship bias, or the fact that since history is written by the winners, the experiences of the losers are omitted. Other biases include attribution errors and resistance to new evidence. In part or combined, these biases can degrade rational thought, potentially sending decision-makers off-course. A particularly dangerous scenario is when a decision has been made but not implemented, because it opens the possibility that a unit may continue fighting an outdated plan if the situation does change.
In 2005, a Canadian special operations unit launched a time sensitive raid against a Taliban commander in northern Kandahar province. The plan was a simple pre-dawn helicopter insert to landing zones around the objective, followed by a sweep to secure the target. The risks of an insert time near first light were assessed as manageable, in part, due to a simple scheme of maneuver and limited reports of enemy activity.
Then friction settled in.
During the night, the target moved, necessitating new landing zones. Other Taliban commanders were rumoured in the area. Limited connectivity interfered with communicating these developments across the task force, particularly with the aviation component. As night went on, launch criteria was not met and the task force stood down, only to be launched mid-morning when the target was confirmed on the objective.
When the helicopters reached the target area, just after noon, they found several landing zones unsuitable and higher than expected enemy activity. The result was the loss of two CH-47 Chinooks, thankfully with minimal casualties. However, had decision makers absorbed the full implication of new evidence during mission planning, a disastrous mission might have been averted completely.
One way to overcome cognitive biases is to seek out a wide variety of conditional information, that is, data from sources with high qualifications. This, combined with analytical techniques that bring alternative perspectives, such as devil’s advocacy or outside-in thinking, can enable more holistic understanding of the environment. That said, anti-fragile leaders would be advised to follow the Stockdale Paradox or, as Jim Collins again puts it, to “…never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
In Command and Out of Control
One conclusion drawn from confronting reality is that there are external events outside our control which nevertheless impact our teams, such as COVID-19. However, despite assertions to the contrary, COVID-19 was not a Black Swan.
While predicting a virus with the exact characteristics of COVID-19 may have been unlikely, predicting a pandemic was not. This difference is important and aligns with Taleb’s observation that the world is composed of two domains, the first of which includes the physical world and can be predicted to some extent. The other domain, composed of social, economic and cultural life, cannot.
In 2002, as an infantry platoon commander in Afghanistan, my company was bombed by an American F-16 while conducting night training at an established range outside Kandahar Airfield. The resulting investigation concluded that nothing anyone in our company could have done would have changed the outcome that night. Sometimes, like the character Hoot says in the movie, Blackhawk Down, ‘you can’t control who gets hit or who doesn’t. It ain’t up to you. It’s just war.’
Still, embracing the type of fatalistic thinking expressed above would be the wrong lesson to draw from this event. Instead, what this situation illustrates is that while there are indeed events outside our control, we are in command of how we interact with those events. In other words, time and resources spent trying to predict inherently unpredictable events – like being bombed while conducting training – are better spent preparing to respond to shocks and uncertainty.
By analysing the operating environment to assess what lies outside one’s control, an anti-fragile leader should be able to draw conclusions about what is within their control, specifically, the resources and mechanisms to mitigate vulnerabilities and prepare a team to operate under stress. As Taleb says, “The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control, and, what’s worse, the opposite.”
Move With No Openings
While Taleb implies that predicting the future is often for turkeys, this is not entirely true, as evidenced through his two-domain framework. Some events can be predicted. The very day my company was bombed in Afghanistan, we had practiced UH-60 medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) drills because of the assessed risk of casualties. Sure, those casualties were supposed to occur from combat. That distinction, however, was irrelevant to the MEDEVAC drills and our training helped us conduct a fast evacuation that saved lives. To get to that point, we used a generic, yet likely, risk scenario and implemented a mitigating plan with no downside.
This strategy is one half of what Taleb calls barbelling, a bimodal methodology that avoids risk in areas with potentially negative impacts, while seeking out risk in areas with potentially positive impacts. Put differently, barbelling involves mitigating downside risk where possible, while preserving the ability to seize upside opportunities when they occur. How much effort goes to each side of the barbell remains up to the practitioner, guided by assessments of risk versus reward and how much they can stand to lose.
In practical terms, barbelling starts with a risk assessment to determine which threats are more likely and more consequential. Once complete, resources can be assigned and preparatory processes developed for chosen scenarios. For example, basic operating procedures to collect information, communicate and operate under stress can all be developed before a crisis situation. Likewise, building redundancy into teams can help mitigate system collapse should specific parts fail, while also preserving an ability to seize fleeting opportunities. This is, after all, the idea behind a reserve, defined by Field Manual 3-0 Operations as “…a hedge against risk,” and which, “…provides flexibility to react to unforeseen circumstances.”
Thematically, anti-fragile leaders looking to mitigate risk should be guided by then Major-General James Mattis’ advice to US Marines in 2003; “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” And yet, while this advice provides the intent, the reality is that one cannot prepare for everything. As Taleb notes in Black Swan, “…infinite vigilance is just not possible.”
As a result, in addition to choices regarding what risks to prepare for and how to use finite resources, anti-fragile leaders must also embrace adaptation.
Adapt or Die
The last component of an anti-fragile approach to leadership is grounded in the reality that some efforts to prepare for uncertainty will fail. In this case, there are two imperatives for an anti-fragile leader. First, they must have a mechanism to recognize when things are not working. This is based on author Laurence Gonzales’ observation that how fast someone can adjust their mental map to a changing reality is a strong indicator of who will make it through a survival situation. The second imperative is to adapt to the new reality and to do so in a timely manner.
These ideas are incorporated in Taleb’s concept of optionality. As a process, optionality involves taking an action and assessing whether that action delivered the desired results, while simultaneously retaining the ability to take a different action depending on what happens. Simply, a practitioner does not become locked in to future actions based on what they did in the past. Applying this principle within an anti-fragile leadership approach is straightforward: anti-fragile leaders promote ways to be high on optionality, which includes being able to adapt.
In practice, adaptation is simply the lessons learned process, a method to identify areas for remedial action which, when implemented, improve performance or capability. Unfortunate, then, that many lessons learned programs fail due to lack of support and participation. To be effective, this process of conscious adaptation must be functional and responsive, tied to observations about the evolving environment and equipped with feedback loops that get information to practitioners in time to be useful. Here, one of the biggest actions an anti-fragile leader can take is to simply assign resources. If learning is important – and it is – then leaders must find time to make it happen.
Although the future may not be what it used to be, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s works on randomness provide a framework that can help leaders prepare for uncertainty. This framework is based on a methodology that emphasizes clear goals and priorities, an unflinching understanding of the world and one’s freedom of action within it and an emphasis on risk mitigation and adaptation. When implemented, this anti-fragile approach to leadership will enable teams to not only survive uncertainty but, as Taleb says, “…have the last word.”