Nassim Taleb antifragile leadership and management


I’m not the only one who talks about Embracing Failure along with Leadership and Management in the same breath. Not surprisingly, Taleb’s “Antifragile” had plenty to say on the subject of Leadership and Management. And like my perspective and link between the two subject, Taleb’s observations also pivoted on the notion of risk stewardship.

Contrary to the prevailing cult of ‘Leadership’, Taleb articulates strong advocacy for the power of effective ‘Management’ (ie. downside minimisation)…

  • “Of course a bonus system based on ‘performance’ exacerbates the problem [of focusing only on upside and not downside avoidance]. I’ve looked in the history for heroes who become heroes for what they did not do, but it is hard to observe nonaction…The corporate manager who avoids loss will not often be rewarded.”
  • “There is a Latin expression ‘festina lente’, ‘make haste slowly’…The Chinese thinker Lao Tzu coined the doctrine of wu-wei, ‘passive achievement.”
  • “The Romans revered someone who, at the least, resisted and delayed intervention. One general, Fabius Maximus was nicknamed Cunctator, ‘the Procrastinator.’ He drove Hannibal, who had an obvious military superiority, crazy by avoiding and delaying engagement.”
  • “Statement by the financier Warren Buffet that he tries to invest in businesses that are ‘so wonderful that an idiot can run them. Because sooner or later, one will.”
  • “If you ‘have optionality,’ you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and this complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. All you need is the wisdom to ‘not do’ unilltelligent things to hurt yourself (some acts of omission) and recognize favourable outcomes when they occur.”

Business and life has been tainted by the ‘industrial’ mentality’ of the 20th century where the notion predominated that all outcomes could be engineered through process and planning. Over time, people found holes in their ability, but they felt that that their shortcomings were just gaps and that if they filled the gaps with more process, then the system would work. So process got layered with more process onto process with belts, and braces, and duct tape resulting in the large-scale megalith corporations that are designed to control every aspect of business outcome. The myth of the coin-operated spreadsheet.

The fallacy of this model is only now becoming apparent. The idea that one can create the perfect system blueprint following some PRINCE, ISO-certified recipe that ticks every boxes and accounts for every eventuality is widely discredited now. That approach is probably responsible for as many multi-million dollar project scrapheaps than successes. The software world has also moved sharply away from the “big bang” approaches of the 20th century to a more dynamic more of “Agile” development built around the notions of “iterate and improve.” Maybe that an apropos shorthand for “Antifragile” – “Agile”.