According to the Dark Side of Leadership: Catastrophic Failure, recent history provides us with numerous examples of leadership and organizational failures caused by black swans or predictable surprises. However, these failures and their often devastating consequences can be minimized or even avoided, by the awareness of their potential and by taking timely and appropriate action. To enhance awareness, leaders must understand the nature of the environment in which they lead, and the psychological and organizational vulnerabilities that threaten their ability to appropriately recognize and react to potential threats.
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However, these failures and their often devastating consequences can be minimized or even avoided, by the awareness of their potential and by taking timely and appropriate action.
According to the article, by definition a "black swan" is statistically unpredictable, devastating, and only considered that it could have been predictable after the fact. A "predictable surprise," on the other hand, is a "known" problem but assessed as "unsolvable." Based on these definitions, it is difficult to fully agree with the above statement. Personally, I believe it is safe to say that the consequences of such failures "can be minimized," but I'm not sure that they can be fully avoided.
The devastating events of September 11th were mentioned as examples of both a black swan and a predictable surprise. I think in each instance this is a great example of consequences of a "leadership failure" that could not have been completely avoided. Certainly, we can say now that several safe-guards in national security could have been stronger before 9/11, but until that day, they had never been necessary. I don't think it is natural for humans to predict such a level of violence and evil. I do not think this act of terrorism could have been predicted or stopped, therefore, the consequences could absolutely not have been completely avoidable.
On the other hand, could structural changes have been made in the construction of the Twin Towers that could have minimized the devastation? Could a different emergency evacuation plan have saved more lives? Possibly. Therefore, in this example I would agree that the consequences could have been minimized, but not necessarily avoided.
Another example used in the article is the devastation of Hurricane Katrina due to the weakness in the levy system and the mismanagement of disaster recovery. City leaders knew well in advance that the levy system would fail in the presence of a large enough storm. The surprise here was the storm itself. Like 9/11, until it happens, many believe something so destructive could never happen. Again, the effects of this predictable surprise could have been minimized with a stronger levy system. They could have been further minimized by better management of disaster recovery. However, would that have completely solved the problem of hurricane damage in the aftermath of Katrina? No. I believe the storm would still have been considered devastating.
For me, it is difficult to label "acts of God," and "acts of terrorism," as leadership "failures," as if these catastrophes are in any way the fault of the leadership. And by definition, I believe it takes something so uncharacteristic and so devasting to even be considered a black swan or predictable surprise. Instead, these are opportunities for leaders to step and up thrive in creating solutions after the fact. I agree with the author that all vulnerabilities within an organization need to be looked at, minimized, planned for. However, every catastrophy simply cannot be predicted, therefore I cannot support that the consequences of such catastrophes can be avoided completely.
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