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  • Writer's picturePeter McKenzie

Being a resilient leader is not enough. There is a much better option…

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

In tough times, no one wants to work for a leader who cracks, breaks down, or appears fragile. People look for their leaders to withstand the pressure, to be resilient.

But is being resilient enough? Sure, this implies that the leader and their team or organization can withstand and resist the hard times, to recover and bounce back to where they were. But is there a better option?

As a follower of Stoic philosophy and someone that has tried to apply Stoic principles to leading in difficult moments, I was always looking to build my resilience as a leader and prepare for unpredictable moments. Until I read one book that changed my way of thinking completely.

“Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In this book, Taleb explains that if fragile things break when under stress, the opposite of fragile would not be something resilient ie that resists breaking. No, it would be something that gets stronger under pressure.

As no word existed for this, he invented one: “antifragile”

Taleb argues that in a volatile and unpredictable world, looking to be resilient and survive is simply not enough. He proposes that the winners in difficult times would be antifragile.

To make the concept a bit clearer, here are some examples of antifragility:

- Obi-Wan Kenobi when he said, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

- Muscles that get stronger as we push them to the limit.

- The Hydra from the Greek myths grew two heads every time one was cut off.

All of these are examples of people or things that got stronger with adversity.

Taleb´s book is great fun but not an easy read. That nonetheless makes it all the more worthwhile.

It is packed with ideas, but here I will give you four that I think can be directly applied to becoming an antifragile leader:

1) Add redundancies into your environment

In modern business, everyone has been taught to be as efficient as possible. For example. we have “just in time” supply chains with no stock or waste. Workforces are trimmed to the minimum. The idea of having spares or excess is seen as wasteful.

However, when a crisis hits, there is a sudden peak in demand or people fall sick the fragile system breaks. Taleb argues that although it may cost something more in the short run, building in some redundancy into our systems and processes allows us to better compete and win in crisis moments. As leaders, we should resist the urge or call to cut everything to the bone.

2) Get stressed

There are so many articles about stress relief and even avoiding stress completely, but we easily forget that some stress is a good thing. Short bouts of stress followed by recovery make us stronger mentally and physically. If we remove stress altogether, we have no chance of coping with a crisis when it comes.

Some things we can do here to get used to positive stress are to fast, run, lift weights or take cold showers (I do this one every day). I can´t stress the importance of this point enough (sorry!)

3) Practice “via Negativa”

Taleb borrows this idea from Latin. Instead of looking to constantly add things to our lives, we should subtract things. These can include removing unnecessary habits, possessions, time spent with toxic colleagues, unhealthy food or drink, etc.

By doing this we decrease our downside to risk because we need less. This also simplifies our lives and the way we act daily, giving us more time and space to be effective leaders. We have all seen people that seem to have it all, but how fragile they can really be. Avoid this by lightening the load and following via Negativa.

4) Always keep options open

When chaos and crisis strike, the person with the most options has the best chance of survival. We can do this in several ways. For example, we can ensure we have more than one skill in case our current job is lost. In my case, for example, I have a coaching and speaking career as well as my main CFO role.

Another way is to have cash in the bank and not invest it all. You may lose short-term returns, but you will have the margin to maneuver in a crisis.

As a leader, knowing we have optionality increases our confidence to overcome obstacles, making us more effective before, during, and after a crisis.

These are just four of many great ideas in Nassim Nicholas Talib´s book. I highly recommend it and also highly recommend that you work to become an antifragile leader.

If you would like some help with that or with your leadership challenges in general, please reach out to me for a coaching session.

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