Sunday, January 31, 2016

Gray Rhinos

Now that I'm an entrepreneur, I do a lot of networking and meet brand new people every single week. Last week I met a woman whose book is about to come out called The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore. Michele Wucker has intrigued me with her term "gray rhino." On her website, she explains that she coined the term after witnessing how clear it was that Greece's economic crisis would bring down the European Union, yet the EU took no action to head off that catastrophe until the very last minute. A gray rhino is a problem that is clear and heading straight towards us, but we do our damnedest to ignore it and deny it until it's right on top of us.

Of course, the easiest gray rhinos to see are those of other people. You can probably remember times when you wanted to shake someone and say, "Stop pretending everything's going to be okay! If you don't do something, this is only going to get worse!" What's much harder is to acknowledge the gray rhinos in our own lives.

Michele Wucker's book has this description:

A "gray rhino" is a highly probable, high impact yet neglected threat: kin to both the elephant in the room and the improbable and unforeseeable black swan. Gray rhinos are not random surprises, but occur after a series of warnings and visible evidence. The bursting of the housing bubble in 2008, the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, the new digital technologies that upended the media world, the fall of the Soviet Union...all were evident well in advance.
Why do leaders and decision makers keep failing to address obvious dangers before they spiral out of control? Drawing on her extensive background in policy formation and crisis management, as well as in-depth interviews with leaders from around the world, Michele Wucker shows in The Gray Rhino how to recognize and strategically counter looming high impact threats. Filled with persuasive stories, real-world examples, and practical advice, The Gray Rhino is essential reading for managers, investors, planners, policy makers, and anyone who wants to understand how to profit by avoiding getting trampled.

Her book seems to take a macro-view of how gray rhinos affect us, with a focus on public policy and major world events, but it's a good metaphor and I can think of how it has applied to my life. The ending of my marriage was probably a gray rhino. I didn't see it coming, but once my ex-husband made it clear that we were done, I was able to look back and see the evidence that led to it. One of my most painful moments during that period was when a friend suggested that none of my friends were surprised by Bob's action. I felt wounded, humiliated and stupid as I considered that my close friends had known my marriage was on the way down the tubes while I hadn't. It's possible that this individual was wrong; maybe she was the only one who had seen my divorce coming, but I was rocked by the idea that everyone had expected it but me.

Any divorced person who wasn't the one to initiate the split probably knows what a gray rhino feels like when it hits. Even though Wucker's book focuses on leadership decisions, business climates and political changes, gray rhino is a term that works for life on the personal level, too. Someone once told me about the end of her mother's life, during which her father had insisted that her mother's illness was about to be cured and she was going to be just fine. He was absolutely certain of this no matter how many things pointed in the opposite direction. The only thing he couldn't ignore was when her mother actually stopped breathing and was declared dead. As the family began grieving and making arrangements, my friend said her father looked shell-shocked and became incapable of making any decisions and couldn't even really respond when others offered him condolences.

The term gray rhino sounds like an effective one for business management and global policy discussions, but it's also ideal for talking about our personal lives. We sometimes refer to the elephant in the room, but that elephant just sits there, waiting to be acknowledged or ignored as we choose. A gray rhino is charging and demands action, whether it's outward action or grappling with inner pain, like my friend's father. At what point does the elephant in the room become a gray rhino? It's a sobering question. Wucker's book has me thinking about what elephants in my life could be come gray rhinos if I don't pay attention to them.

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