3 Behaviors of the Antifragile Leader

Last year, I had a conversation that gave me an interesting new lens to think about leadership.

David Peterson, who directs coaching and leadership development at Google, steered me to Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Taleb suggests that objects fall into three categories when they are exposed to volatility and stress:fitness2

  • Fragile: Objects that weaken and break under stress. Think of glass that shatters under pressure.
  • Robust: Objects that are robust and resilient under stress. Think of a rock that remains unchanged under stress.
  • Antifragile: Objects that grow stronger under stress. Think about muscles that are strengthened when exposed to stress and resistance and, conversely, atrophy under low-stress conditions.

Antifragile leaders, then, are those who can be thrown into any situation and will not only survive but thrive. They will grow in their capacity and abilities over time, in an ongoing cycle of stressors and strengtheners.

Which begs the question:

What are the behaviors that lead to antifragile leaders?

In identifying antifragile behaviors, three criteria seem important to me. The behaviors should (1) increase a leader’s potential over time; (2) be self-reinforcing, causing people to want to engage in them even more in the future; and (3) be learned skills. Based on these criteria, I’ve come up with three key behaviors so far:

  1. Feedback Seeking. Feedback seeking is more than passively being open to feedback. It involves strategically identifying the key people in one’s network and scheduling specific times to ask people for their feedback. The type of feedback that is sought is also important. For example, strong negative feedback might decrease the likelihood of it being sought in the future. An appreciative inquiry approach to feedback is more likely to be self-reinforcing. For example, rather than just ask for strengths and weaknesses, an antifragile approach might ask, “What are my strengths?” and “What could get in the way of my future success?” In this way, negatives are always discussed in terms of one’s future potential.
  2. Systems Thinking. Systems thinking is the ability of leaders to identify the dynamics at play within an organizational system. Leaders are able to think beyond themselves to identifying the key stakeholders in the system, what they value, and how their goals play out dynamically in the larger organization. When people seem irrational, a systems thinker doesn’t get angry, but thinks, “How interesting” – knowing the behavior is completely logical from the others’ perspective. Systems thinking also means finding a way to solve today’s problems in a way that also solves tomorrow’s problems or prevents them altogether.
  3. Critical Thinking. Critical thinking, among other things, is the ability to argue with oneself. Strong critical thinkers ask themselves, “Why am I wrong?” They don’t think one chess move at a time (What is my opinion?), but plot out at least three at all times (What is my opinion? What are the best counter-arguments? What is my rebuttal – if there is one?). Critical thinkers are willing to live in the dissonance of not having the perfect solution to a problem because finding the truth is more important than winning the argument.

What do you think it takes to develop antifragile leaders? And is antifragile a useful way to frame what is needed to prepare people to face unknown challenges that they will encounter over an entire career? Talk about it with your colleagues – and let me know what you think.

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