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Using Clean Language to develop Antifragile Leadership


We often hear about the need for resilient leadership. Indeed, “resilience” is familiar jargon for describing good leadership.

Less understood or referred to is, “antifragile” leadership.

What is antifragile leadership? And how does it compare to fragile, robust or resilient leadership?

From fragile to antifragile

Illustration by Julian Burton. Used with permission.

We all know examples of things that are fragile. A wine glass is fragile. As is an egg. Even the slightest pressure on either will cause it to break. Clearly, fragile leadership is poor leadership. We need leaders who are able to withstand pressure, not collapse from the mere hint of it.

And then there is robust. This refers to things which can stand quite a lot of pressure or stress, and remain immutable. Things like a brick, a crash helmet or steel. Having said that, there is a limit to the robustness. The tremendous force of a collision, for example, will crack a crash helmet. Even though the impact would need to be pretty high for that to happen, there is still a point when robust things might break.

Resilience describes things that bounce or stretch or return to their original shape after changing shape from pressure being applied. For example, a rubber ball or a rubber band. Squeeze or stretch it and it will change shape. Release the pressure and it will return to its original shape. You can imagine why resilience is viewed as a good trait of leadership.

What about antifragile? The term, and the idea for antifragility, originates from Nassim Nicholas Taleb who wrote the seminal book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. Under pressure, things which are antifragile don’t do any of the things that fragile, robust and resilient things do. Under pressure, antifragile things don’t break or merely retain their original shape. Instead, they change to become even stronger.

A good example from Greek mythology is the Hydra, a serpent-like monster with multiple heads. If you tried to kill it by cutting off one of its heads, two would grow back to replace it.

A good example of antifragile behaviour is getting vaccinated. Exposure to a small dose of pathogens strengthens your immunity against life-threatening or debilitating diseases. Of course, the amount of exposure needs to be just right. Too little and the system won’t get stronger. Too much, and the system will struggle, shut down and die.

Getting to antifragile leadership

My first introduction to antifragile leadership, way before I even heard of the term, was when I first read about Peter Senge’s idea of learning organisations, which he popularised in his book, The Fifth Discipline.

What I took away from that was, learning organisations use mistakes as an opportunity for learning. Viewed like that, when I ran my own newsroom in my previous career, I didn’t get angry if mistakes happened. Rather, I used the mistakes as a way to find out what we needed to learn about being better at our journalism.

I’m confident I’m not the only one who has practised antifragile leadership, or even fragile, robust or resilient leadership. If you’re a leader – be it in your family, community, organisation, company or country – I’m betting you’ve experienced what it’s like to be fragile, robust, resilient and antifragile.

The challenge for me is, how can we become more aware of these different states we are in, so that when we’re leading, we can lead with awareness and be at our best?

At The Embodiment Conference 2020, Caitlin Walker facilitated a session called Embodying Antifragility in Leadership. She facilitated attendees through the different states of being fragile, robust and antifragile, using just five clean questions, and a few clean-ish questions.

For each of the states I've mentioned, she started with:

“Think of a time when you were fragile / robust / antifragile. When you’re fragile / robust / antifragile, you’re like what?”

Then she invited the attendees to ask themselves the following questions about their answers:

  • What kind of […] is that?
  • Is there anything else about that?
  • Where is […]?

For example, if someone said that when they are fragile they are 'weak', they could ask themselves,  “What kind of weak?” or “Where is that weak?” or “Is there anything else about that weak?”

Similarly, when someone else said they are like a mountain when they are robust, they could ask, “What kind of mountain?” or “Where is that mountain?” or “Is there anything else about that mountain?”

For Caitlin, when she’s antifragile, “there’s space in my heart”. And so, we could ask her, “What kind of space / heart?” or “Where is that space / heart?” or “Is there anything else about that space / heart?”

These three clean questions alone will help you to start to embody your sense of being fragile or robust or antifragile.

But Caitlin didn’t stop there. She asked more questions:

  • And what happens next?
  • And what needs to happen for you to be … ?
  • What does your being antifragile make possible?
  • What are the benefits of being antifragile?
  • Are there any costs to being antifragile?
  • How can you stay more often in antifragile?
  • What are some of the things that support you to be antifragile?
  • If you've got somebody in your life who is more fragile, what could you do to stay antifragile when you're around them?

Using these questions resulted in rich descriptions of how people experienced the different states. They allowed attendees a chance to discover and explore what they were like when they were being fragile, robust or antifragile, and to embody these states.

Imagine what it would be like if as leaders, we had more information about ourselves and how we can be fragile, robust, resilient or antifragile when we were leading. Imagine having a leader with an awareness of what kind of leadership is needed, and then being that kind of leader because they already have an embodied sense of it.

The questions I've shared will help you arrive at that information and awareness. Give them a go and see what happens.

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About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.

She can be found on LinkedIn.

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