The Biopark of Leadership:  Black Swans, Gray Rhinos, and the Pink Elephant in the Room: NeoDeMarcoian Thought

Just a quick glance around the globe—and quoting the great thinker, lyricist, punk rocker, writer, and Talking Heads front man David Byrne

… And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself in another part of the world

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?

Rising China, Russians in Ukraine, North Korean ICBMs, Iranian unrest, hypersonics, artificial intelligence, unmanned everything—“Well, how did we get here?”

LEADERSHIP TRIAD

Are these issues related, connected, or possibly absolutely unrelated and disconnected.  Is there a systems thinking or design thinking approach to be used here?  Or is this a job for leaders.  I have long argued the best leaders understand and exist in a sort of triad between understanding i) leadership concepts, ideas, theory, ii) creativity or innovation, iii) strategy.  When we put those together it begins to a look a bit like a futurist or perhaps I need to add iv) futurist to the equation?  

A futurist is a person who studies and attempts to predict future trends and developments in various fields such as technology, society, politics, and culture. Futurists may use a variety of methods to make their predictions, including statistical analysis, trend forecasting, scenario planning, and expert interviews. They may also draw on a wide range of disciplines, such as economics, sociology, psychology, and political science.

Could we argue leaders need to be both futurist and strategist because they play different but complementary roles in helping organizations to achieve their goals and adapt to changing circumstances.

Futurists help leaders to anticipate and prepare for potential future developments and challenges, by providing them with insights and recommendations based on their predictions of future trends and developments. This helps leaders to identify potential opportunities and risks, and to develop strategies that are more resilient and adaptable to change.

Strategists, on the other hand, help leaders to develop and implement plans and strategies that are aligned with the organization’s goals and vision. They use analytical tools and frameworks to evaluate the internal and external environment and to guide decision-making. They also help leaders to ensure that the strategies are implemented effectively and that progress is monitored and adjustments made as needed.

Together, futurists and strategists provide leaders with a comprehensive perspective on the future and help them to make informed decisions that are grounded in both a deep understanding of current and potential future developments and a clear sense of where the organization is headed. By having both a futurist and a strategist working together, leaders are able to anticipate and prepare for potential future developments and create a strategic plan that is resilient and adaptable to change, which would give the organization a competitive advantage in the future.

Innovator, creative, strategist, futurist, and/or leader it seems we are still shocked and surprised by events.  I always recall reading the 9/11 report saying the US suffered from a lack of imagination and ponder what does that really mean.  Did we fail in our futuring, or strategy, our leadership?  Or was this simply an unpredictable event —a Black Swan.

THE BIOPARK of LEADERSHIP

There are so many animal metaphors swarming around the idea of innovation, creativity, and futuring.

Futurists often use animal metaphors to describe different types of scenarios and trends that may occur in the future. Here are a few examples:

  1. “Black swan” – an unpredictable event that has a major impact on the world.
  2. “Gray rhino” – a high-impact, probable event that is ignored or neglected.
  3. “Wildcard” – a low-probability event with a high impact.
  4. “Butterfly effect” – small events that can lead to large and unexpected consequences.
  5. “Elephant in the room” – an obvious problem, issue or situation that is being ignored or avoided by everyone involved.
  6. “Hedgehog” – a long-term thinker or strategist who focuses on a single goal or idea.
  7. “Ostrich” – someone who ignores or avoids a problem or issue.
  8. “Canary in the coal mine” – an early warning signal of a potential problem or danger.
  9. “Shark” – someone who is aggressive and competitive, always looking for opportunities to advance.
  10. “Whale” – a large, powerful entity or organization that can have a major impact on an industry or market.

Innovators often use animal metaphors to describe different aspects of innovation and the creative process. Here are a few examples:

  1. “Blue ocean” – a market or industry that is untapped or undiscovered, with a wide range of opportunities for innovation.
  2. “Shark” – someone who is always moving forward, constantly looking for new opportunities and ways to innovate.
  3. “Early bird” – someone who is quick to take advantage of new opportunities and trends.
  4. “Ostrich” – someone who buries their head in the sand, avoiding change and new ideas.
  5. “Butterfly” – a metaphor for the process of metamorphosis and transformation, often used to describe the process of innovation.
  6. “Hedgehog” – someone who is focused on a single, big idea and relentless in pursuit of it.
  7. “Lion” – someone who is bold and brave, willing to take risks and challenge the status quo.
  8. “Chameleon” – someone who can adapt and change to fit different situations and environments.
  9. “Elephant” – a metaphor for a large organization or company that is slow to change and resistant to new ideas.
  10. “Gazelle” – a fast-moving, agile and adaptable company that is able to outmaneuver and outcompete larger rivals.

BLACK SWANS

Perhaps the best known is the black swan: a  term used to describe an unpredictable event that has a major impact on the world. The term was popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” in which he argues that many significant historical events were “black swans” – events that were not predictable or even imaginable before they occurred. The term is often used to describe events such as financial crises, political revolutions, and natural disasters.

Here are a few examples of events that have been described as “black swans”:

  1. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001
  2. The global financial crisis of 2008
  3. The rise of the internet and the digital revolution
  4. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991
  5. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020
  6. The Arab Spring in 2010-2011
  7. The discovery of the New World in 1492
  8. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century
  9. The invention of the telephone in the 19th century
  10. The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack

It’s important to note that the classification of an event as a “black swan” is often a matter of perspective and interpretation. Some events that are considered to be black swans to some people might not be considered as such by others.

GRAY SWANS and/or GRAY RHINOS and ELEPHANTS

In listening to a recent podcast an author used the term GRAY SWAN—which honestly made me stop and think—there are just too many creatures in this space—we need a biopark to house and try to make sense of them all.  BUT—a gray swan is a term used to describe an event that is less unlikely and more predictable than a black swan, but still has the potential to cause significant impact. Gray swans are events that are not necessarily unexpected, but are not fully anticipated or prepared for. They are often characterized by a high degree of uncertainty and a lack of data or evidence to predict or prevent them. Examples of gray swan events include emerging technologies, geopolitical shifts, or natural disasters. They are considered to be a less extreme version of a black swan event, and their impact can be reduced by being prepared. 

A gray rhino is a term used to describe a high-impact, probable event that is ignored or neglected. The term is similar to “gray swan” and is often used interchangeably. It is a metaphor used to describe an event that is both visible and dangerous, but is often ignored or downplayed until it is too late. The term was coined by Michele Wucker, president and CEO of the World Policy Institute, in her book “The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore.” Like gray swans, gray rhinos are events that are not necessarily unexpected, but are not fully anticipated or prepared for. Examples of gray rhino events include economic bubbles, political corruption, and environmental catastrophes. The idea is that it is easier to prevent a gray rhino than to react to a black swan because it is more predictable, but it requires acknowledging and acting on the potential risk.

Of course these both are derivatives of the elephant in the room:   a term used to describe an obvious problem, issue or situation that is being ignored or avoided by everyone involved. The phrase is often used to describe an uncomfortable or awkward situation, where people are aware of a problem but are reluctant to discuss or acknowledge it. The “elephant in the room” is an idiomatic expression which refers to something that is so big, obvious and impossible to miss, but nobody wants to talk about it. An elephant in the room can be a social, political, economic, or personal issue, but it is something that affects everyone and is hard to ignore. An elephant in the room can be a sensitive or taboo topic that people avoid discussing, or a difficult problem that people are reluctant to confront.

AND… of course these are not to be confused by a PINK elephant.   A “pink elephant” is a term used to describe a hallucination or a figment of imagination, often associated with drunkenness or drug-induced state. The phrase “to see pink elephants” refers to the visual hallucinations that can occur when someone is extremely drunk or under the influence of certain drugs. The origins of the phrase can be traced back to the early 20th century, when it was used to describe the hallucinations that alcoholics would experience after a heavy drinking session.

It can also be used in a figurative sense to describe something that is not real, a figment of imagination, a fanciful notion, a wild idea, an impossible dream, an unattainable goal or an illusion. In this sense, it is often used to describe something that is impossible, unrealistic or imaginary.

THE UNDERSEA WORLD

In doing my usual deep—Google research for such post I came across another odd creature.  The “black jellyfish” is a metaphor for a complex and uncertain problem or event, that is difficult to predict, understand or control. It is often used to describe a situation that is dynamic, non-linear, and characterized by a high degree of uncertainty and unpredictability—a.k.a complex. The metaphor implies that the problem is like a black jellyfish, it is dark and obscure, and it is hard to see and understand its shape and behavior.

Some examples of “black jellyfish” could be: a global pandemic, a systemic financial crisis, or a large-scale environmental disaster. Such events are difficult to predict, understand or control, and they require new ways of thinking and decision making to deal with them.

BUILDING THE BIOPARK

How do we put all of these together or do they even belong together.  Perhaps all these creators exist in a bio park. A biopark is a type of zoo or nature reserve that focuses on the preservation and education of living organisms and their natural habitats. Bioparks typically include a wide range of animal and plant species, and often have a strong emphasis on conservation and research.  Some bioparks may also include facilities for scientific research and education, such as laboratories, classrooms, and exhibition halls. The main goal of a biopark is to promote education, conservation and research while providing an opportunity for visitors to learn and appreciate the natural world.  I’m drawn to this idea of education and research around these metaphorical creatures.  

As I was writing my doctoral dissertation I came to the conclusion that any dissertation probably needs a 2×2 chart and surprisingly enough—I came across this 2×2 chart—it is not perfect, and actually hurts my head a bit.  

This leads into pondering the Idea of “knowns” and “unknowns.”  An “unknown unknown” is a term used to describe a situation or fact that is not only unknown to an individual or group, but is also unknowable. It refers to the possibility of something unexpected happening, that one doesn’t know that they don’t know. It is something that is beyond the realm of current knowledge or understanding, and has not yet been discovered or considered. It is also called as “unk-unk” for short.

An example of an unknown unknown could be a new technological breakthrough that has not yet been discovered or imagined, or a natural disaster that has not occurred before and for which no one is prepared. It is something that is not on the radar, and therefore not even considered as a risk. It is also something that is very hard to anticipate and plan for.

The concept of unknown unknowns is often used in fields such as risk management, security, and intelligence, where it is important to anticipate and prepare for potential threats and surprises. It is also used in decision making and strategic planning to help identify and mitigate unknown risks.

Of course the term “unknown unknowns” was first popularized by Donald Rumsfeld, who served as the United States Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006. In a press briefing on February 12, 2002, Rumsfeld used the phrase to describe the lack of information about potential threats posed by Iraq, specifically weapons of mass destruction. He said: “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

The concept of “unknown unknowns” is not new, and it has been used in various fields such as mathematics, statistics, philosophy, psychology, and risk management. But Rumsfeld’s use of the phrase brought it to the attention of a wider audience and it has been used in various fields since then, especially in the field of risk management, intelligence, and decision making.

My final thought:  How do we go about building a metaphorical biopark where researcher, professors, and students of leadership, innovation, and strategy can come together and think, read, research, and write about the future?  Is something that might be useful to the US Department of Defense or even closer to home the US Air Force?  Maybe we are already doing this and it simply needs to be called out and made more pronounced.  My concern—we don’t want to have another mid-air with a black swan.  

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