Blog Post

The things that can never happen (and it's the leader's job to find them)

Oct 12, 2023

Once again something that “could never happen” has happened, and has unleashed a series of terrible events that have shattered lives and the plans people had for their futures.  Like many of the “things that could never happen” it was sudden, those who should have been prepared were not prepared, the intelligence was faulty and the risk management nowhere to be seen.

Clearly that is a description of what has happened this week in the Middle East, but it was true of Ukraine, of Covid, of the financial crash, of 9/11.  Why are we so incapable of thinking about the real risks?  Why do we focus on the short-term response and then hope the problem will go away.

Some problems like climate change that can involve the possible extinction of humanity can be so overwhelming that we deny them or bury them.  We don’t like to contemplate our own mortality or existential threats to our health and wealth.

But the main problem is that we are wired to prioritise the immediate over the longer term.  The sabre-toothed tiger rustling in the bushes still walks through our dreams and so we focus on today. Politicians and political systems keep us thinking about the short-term because if electors were to start to take a longer-term view, then their power would evaporate.

So how do you deal with this if you are running a company?  How do you start to focus on the “things that can never happen”. 

First, accept that as a leader it is YOUR responsibility, not those nice people in Strategy, not the advisors – YOURS.

Yes, you need to make sure that the short-term is taken care of, but your duty is to make sure the company survives and that means fighting that short-term wiring and focusing on the things that can never happen.  How do you do that?  You run tough scenario workshops, accept the outputs, and stay engaged with the issues that may be precursors of the real threats to your future survival. Ukraine, Covid, 9/11 were neither abstract nor particularly complex risks and every one of them could be foreseen - there was evidence but it was ignored.

Leaders must think the unthinkable and push others to do so.  It’s hard, most of the time it seems like time wasted, but every now and then there is a payback and that payback is survival.