Did You See COVID-19 Coming?
Avoiding the Curse of Cassandra
In Greek mythology, Cassandra is wooed by the god Apollo, who grants her the ability to see the future. However, she doesn’t return his affection, and in true Greek-myth-godlike response, he curses her with not being believed.
So she can see the future, but no one will believe her.
She later warns the Trojans about the Greeks hiding in the Trojan Horse, and true to form, the Trojans don’t believe her, and look how badly that turned out for them.
What a curse. To see something coming, but have no one believe you.
Competent strategic leaders (I’m not talking about the fluffy kind who claim to be a “big picture person”) have the ability to see things that others can’t. To see things that are yet to be.
It’s okay if you see happy times ahead, but what if they’re not?
What if you see challenging or even threatening times ahead?
Who will believe you? More importantly, how can you get people to believe you?
According to social scientist Shankar Vedantam, there are four primary reasons why Cassandra (and leaders) are not believed:
- They speak in a cryptic language.
- They don’t have formal authority.
- They’re too far ahead of everyone else.
- They ask too much of the people they warn.
Let’s look at these one by one, and see what leaders can do to minimize the Curse of Cassandra.
1. They speak in a cryptic language.
If you want to warn people, then you need to be clear, specific, and ideally, graphic (no, not bloody or gory. Be vivid, be visually explicit). There’s a great story about Jon Stegnor, former head of procurement (purchasing) for John Deere. Deere purchased work gloves, and Stegnor discovered Deere was buying 424 different pairs from 6 different suppliers, and at different prices for the same glove.
Instead of talking about “the glove problem” to demonstrate the mini-crisis to other executives, Stegnor instead assembled the 424 pairs on a table for all to see. In the end, Deere went from 6 suppliers to 1, from 424 pairs to 24 pairs, and cut the cost of the work gloves in half.
If you have a problem that others can’t or won’t see, create a compelling picture. Avoid technical jargon. Math, science, and reason aren’t strong suits for some. A picture is more accessible, even if the best you can do is a picture with your words.
2. They don’t have formal authority.
Hopefully, as a strong, competent leader, you will have not only position or title authority but also personal authority (i.e. people will want to believe and trust you, not just because they have to).
But there will invariably be those times when you confront an issue outside your expertise, e.g. technology, sales, finance, virology, etc.
In these situations, don’t go it alone. Bring in the expert(s).
We’ve all been there: a leader tries to speak and act like the expert. But just because you’re the leader, you don’t have to know everything. And people won’t believe you anyhow. And you’re too smart to do that anyway.
So bring a more trusted authority who (following reason 1 above) will speak clearly, vividly, concretely, and with little techno- or science jargon. Have him or her show or paint an explicit picture of the future.
3. They’re too far ahead of everyone else.
The leader is frustrated, because for them, the future is so self-evident. And yet others wonder what the fuss is all about. As it was with Cassandra, the leader will be accused of being hysterical, scaremongering, or simply out of touch with reality.
And that is the crux of the problem. Many people live in the day-to-day. “Don’t talk to me about tomorrow; tomorrow will come when tomorrow comes. And furthermore, if I can’t see it, I don’t believe it.”
And yet for truly strategic, visionary leaders (again, not the fluffy type), the future is self-evident. They can put the pieces of the puzzle together rapidly, while many of us are still trying to find the border pieces.
So what to do? How do you get people to be in the future with you?
Build a clear causal chain. Clearly show the steps from where we are to where we’ll be (with the full understanding that you will likely be challenged). Keep in mind that the greater the number of steps in your chain, the more opportunities others will have to critique your analysis. If they can pull on one thread, they’ll claim they’ve unraveled the sweater.
Another approach is to find examples from history and/or from other companies or organizations. Obviously, the closer the example is to your situation, the better. But that’s not always possible. Often, you’ll have to make do with what you can use.
4. They ask too much of the people they warn.
If I ask you to change your toothbrush to ensure the survival of our organization, I assume you’d be inclined to do it. If I ask you to change your teeth, I think I can expect some hesitation.
The bigger the ask, the more likely the resistance from your people.
Even if it’s for their own well-being.
You will likely not have much control over this. If your team or your company is facing an existential crisis, you won’t be able to address it in baby steps.
The ask will need to be big.
A potential way to minimize resistance in an existential crisis is to:
a) make the reward for doing so big, and
b) make the avoidance of pain similarly big (i.e. by doing this, we’ll avoid this horrible outcome).
Regarding the avoidance of pain, evidence from behavioral science / economics strongly indicates we’re motivated more by avoidance of a loss than the potential for gain.
Similarly, the drive for self-preservation and the universality of disgust can be used effectively by painting a vivid picture of a painful or noxious future that is to be avoided at all costs.
Yes, denialists will likely want to do the duck and cover once they’ve heard what might befall them, but hopefully you’ll reach enough of the others to build and maintain momentum.
Again, not a given, but worth a try.
But fortunately you’re no Cassandra.
Particularly, in times of crisis, people are anxious and afraid, which often results in status quo: “I can’t think of the future; I have only enough to deal with today. I hear your warning, but I don’t believe it.” Such was the reality facing Cassandra, and such is the reality possibly facing you.
It didn’t turn out well for Cassandra. She and King Agamemnon were killed by the king’s wife and her lover (what’d you expect? It’s Greek mythology).
But you’re no Cassandra. Your vision is clear, your focus is true, and your fate is yet be written.
Be safe, stay healthy, and lead well.
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