Leadership: Looking For Black Swans

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June 12,2008: A hot topic in U.S. defense think tanks is the "Black Swan" problem. This is all about the fact that unexpected events can have major consequences. Until black swans were discovered in Australia, it was believed all of them were white, and if a black one showed up, consternation would ensue. On a more practical level, the events of September 11, 2001 are considered a classic "Black Swan" event. The Pentagon wants to come up with a way of predicting "Black Swan" events, or at least get a better sense of what kind of possibilities are out there at any given time.

That said, "Black Swans" are not all that rare. Most wars start off with a visit from a dark hued water fowl. And business life is full of such events, but few are reported widely, unless they involve numbers large enough to justify a headline. Many smart people on Wall Street make a lot of money by figuring out where a "Black Swan" will show up next, but the Pentagon has not been able to get much help from Wall Street (which is another story).

Meanwhile, what 911 really did was shift the counter-terrorism argument from, "we have to cope with the terrorists," to, "we have to deal with them." Even before 911, Islamic radicals with long memories tried to warn Osama not to mess with the Westerners, because they will eventually mess you back, big time. The black bird is on Osama's back for now.

But many people, especially outside the United States, are trying to convince America to go along with the more popular "coping with terrorism" approach, rather than chasing after the bad guys with military forces. That's because this approach could, according to many non-Americans, create more "Black Swans". But counter-terrorism experts in the United States disagree with this more passive approach, because they fear that, without the pressure provided by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Islamic terrorists would come up with more "Black Swans". No one is sure which approach is right, and the loser here will get a "Black Swan" as an unwelcome prize.

 


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