01 Oct 2021 11:50 IST

Grey rhinos and blind-as-a-bat leaders

A leader needs to often triage problems hidden in plain sight, and challenge teams to stay objective

An article ‘on the ongoing collapse of Evergrande, China’s second largest and the world’s most indebted- property developer’, said that it looked “much less like the black "swan event" seen by many foreign investors than what officials in China like to call a "grey rhino" — a danger that lurks in plain sight.  Leaders often have to meet “grey rhinos.” In fact, looking for, spotting, and dealing with “grey rhinos” is very much a part of the leader’s job.

Leaders must constantly ask — “What are the risks to the business, the organisation, the team that are hidden in plain sight?” But different leaders choose to deal with the “grey rhinos” differently with lasting consequences.


China Evergrande Group headquarters in Shenzhen, China.   -  Gilles Sabrie | Bloomberg



Living in echo chambers

Some leaders either can’t or won’t see the “grey rhino.” Several Indian banks that went under, with the weight of NPAs that piled up over decades of poor governance and shoddy due diligence, are a great example. Start-up co-founders who refuse to acknowledge the stark contrast in their value systems and the massive differences in their aspirations for the business, also fall prey to being blind-as-a-bat and not seeing the “grey rhinos.”

Often, leaders miss seeing the “grey rhinos.” when they’ve either stopped listening and observing or are listening to and observing the wrong things. Some leaders through their leadership style and the expectations they set, create echo chambers. Team members flatter them, say things they want to hear. The inevitable consequence is that reality is obscured. The grey rhino stands in plain sight camouflaged by illusions accepted as true, by an insecure leader further blinded by spineless team members unwilling to tell him the facts.

Sometimes when everything facing you is “grey” — a crisis like the Covid pandemic for example, the danger is that the leader finds it difficult to spot the shades of grey. Big problems can be indistinguishable from smaller ones. An existential crisis may be hidden from view by a host of operational but relatively minor problems. It’s the leader’s job to ask penetrating questions, challenge team members to stay objective, and triage the problems and risks.

Not seeing a "grey rhino" could sometimes be an even more dangerous sign — that I’m a grey rhino myself! Not unfixable. With a dose of self-awareness, a generous helping of honesty and loads of courage even these blind-as-bat leaders can start opening their eyes and seeing.

Staying in denial

Some leaders ignore the “grey rhinos.” They operate under the belief that if left alone it will just go away on its own. This is a common temptation. Facing a “grey rhino” is risky — for the leader, for the organisation, and the team. It is hard work involving deep dives into details, a merciless reading of the metrics and numbers, a willingness to admit to mistakes and failures. Leaders often give into the temptation to take the easier but ultimately destructive path. They paint an upbeat picture; they conceal hard facts — deluding not just their followers but themselves. They proclaim as one wit put it, that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel and realize only too late, it’s an oncoming train.

Still from the movie The Magnificent Seven (1960). Source: Twitter



As Vin Tanner, Steve McQueen’s character in The Magnificent Seven, would say: “Reminds me of that fellow back home that fell off a ten-storey building. As he was falling, people on each floor kept hearing him say ‘So far, so good’.” That’s the typical response of this kind of leader. He can see the "grey rhino" hurtling towards him, his team, his organisation. Somehow, he believes it will veer off at the last second, or because of an air of invulnerability often born of arrogance or over-confidence, he believes he will sidestep the disaster.

A lady I know had everything going for her. Good looking, a school and college topper, an achiever and yet in her personal relationship she chose to hook up with a guy who was the polar opposite — lazy, irresponsible, substance-addicted and sometimes violent. It was staring her in the face that the relationship was a Titanic setting sail and yet she chose to marry him. Only after two children and years of, sometimes physical abuse, did she finally decide that enough was enough and end the marriage. She chose to be blind to the "grey rhino", almost hoping the problem would fix itself. These kind of "grey rhino" problems never do.

The same thing happens when leaders persist with folk on their team who create a toxic work environment, or who are plainly incompetent or who routinely violate fundamental ethics. The "ignore it" leaders refuse to deal with the issue head on. Everybody knows — the office chatter will debate the problem threadbare; the water cooler gossip will dissect possible solutions, but no one will do anything about it. Leaders wait till the window of minimum damage is closed, and then express regret after the situation has imploded. As the old Belgian proverb goes: “Experience is the comb that nature gives us when we are bald.” The time to act on "grey rhinos" is now. Tomorrow will always be a day too late.

Actionable steps

This is where a real leader steps up. She is willing to call the "grey rhino" out for what it is. She forces the difficult topics onto the table. She insists on honest conversations. She uncovers rather than conceals facts. And when she has sized up the significance, size and implications of the problem, she chooses a strategy to face the "grey rhino" and gets the whole team aligned and behind it. Leaders need enormous courage of conviction to face and fight "grey rhinos". Often, they have to go against established wisdom, abandon experience for imagination and steel themselves to walk an untried path.

Siddharth Sood, a dear friend and former colleague, and his Co-Founder Gaurav Dublish run Wildcraft — one of the hottest retail success stories that made backpacks cool and brought adventure and the spirit of the outdoors within reach. When Covid hit and stores shut and supplies froze, Sid and Gaurav saw the “grey rhino” for what it was — an existential crisis. Sensing the need and the opportunity, they pivoted to making masks. They chose to look at the business based on what it had — design and manufacturing expertise, a strong distribution network, a great brand; rather than what it did — make back packs, apparel, and adventure gear. The masks were a runaway hit and helped the company survive the tough year and emerge stronger and better positioned for growth.

Siddharth Sood and Gaurav Dublish, co-founders, Wildcraft India.


This kind of leader chooses to act. This kind of a leader knows that every delay is what the "grey rhino" feeds on. A baby "grey rhino" ignored comes back full grown and horn lowered for the kill. It takes a special kind of leadership to face it rather than turn our backs to it. Leaders can choose ignorance or indifference — their teams and organisations pay a heavy price when the “grey rhinos” trample all in their path. Or they can choose to face the “grey rhinos” and fight rather than flee. That very choice is half the battle won.