In this exclusive interview, we are privileged to gain insights from Cesare Ceraso, a highly successful multicultural operations senior executive with extensive experience in production management. Our goal is to explore the principles and characteristics that help build resilient organisations and the meaning and key features of anti-fragile leadership. Read on to discover the essential elements of this leadership style and its relevance in navigating uncertainty and complexity in the modern business environment.
Could you provide your definition and explanation of anti-fragile leadership?
For many generations, the idea that the best of our lives was outside our comfort zone has been a true mantra. But the experiences of the last few years tell us that we are no longer in an era of change but in a real change of epoch, where the need to adapt to the changing context has assumed, in terms of speed and impact, levels never known before. As a result, stress and anxiety devour our mental energies, making us increasingly fragile.
Antifragile leadership is a leadership style that embraces and thrives in uncertain, complex and volatile environments. It is based on the concept of antifragility, which refers to the ability of a system, organisation or entity to not only withstand stress and disruption, but to benefit from it by becoming stronger.
Why do you think antifragile leadership is important in today’s business environment?
I firmly believe that, in order to compete, companies will increasingly need leaders who can manage their own emotions and those of others. It is precisely these leaders who will make organisations anti-fragile, as defined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who describes the characteristics of systems or entities that are able not only to withstand stress or disruption, but to benefit from it and emerge stronger.
Most organisations do not appreciate volatility and randomness, yet the world, as mentioned earlier, is becoming increasingly VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). Competitive contexts are characterised by relationships of mutual dependence and non-linearity. This reality cannot be changed, so it is crucial that organisations are able to navigate chaos and take advantage of it.
It is those organisations that are able to exploit randomness that will dominate, but this requires a huge paradigm shift.
What are the common characteristics of fragile organisations?
After reading the book ‘Antifragile’ by Nassim Taleb, I agreed with the author’s statement that robustness is not enough for today’s environment. In fact, people and organisations are constantly undergoing processes of fragilisation. Observing teams in action in contexts of instability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, I drew some conclusions:
- Excess of success: organisations become fragile when they are very successful and feel they have too much to lose if they were to change.
- Lack of awareness: awareness of being fragile is often lacking, which leads to ignoring signs of psychological stress. Leadership, focused on short-term results, jeopardises the performance of the entire organisation in the medium and long term.
- Inaction: rules and procedures combined with decision-making processes that are distant from the operational context and sometimes lack transparency, produce inaction. This is determined by a lack of psychological security, an absence of trust between the various stakeholders and a lack of inclination to accept error as part of the improvement process.
These three characteristics are essential for building antifragile organisations.
What are the key characteristics of antifragile leadership?
Antifragile leaders have the following characteristics:
- Continuous learning mode: they are constantly engaged in learning from the changing context, through a continuous learning approach.
- Openness to new ideas: they recognise that experience can be a limitation in a VUCA context and are open to untried ideas.
- They constantly struggle against a simplified reading of the context and are constantly alert to weak signals.
- They hope for the best but are always prepared for the worst, rejecting the idea that those who have a plan ‘B’ do not have a good plan ‘A’.
- Ability to delegate decisions: they have a great aptitude for delegating decisions to teams in action in chaos scenarios. To this end, they build trusting relationships with people and have an approach of absolute respect for the competences of others.
- Feedback readiness: they are concerned about and able to give and receive constant feedback in order to grow and develop according to the needs of the environment. They are always ready to update and challenge themselves culturally.
- Ability to cope with unpredictability: They know how to deal with unpredictability, using negative events to increase the quality of performance in a rebirth process that goes beyond the concept of resilience. This is why I really appreciate the definition of anti-fragility as Resilience 2.0.
These characteristics enable anti-fragile leaders to thrive in complex environments and help their organisations remain resilient and grow.
Why do you consider emotional agility crucial in the development of an anti-fragile culture?
As some scholars in the world of positive psychology very wittily state, there are only two categories of people who do not experience painful emotions: the first are psychopaths and the second are deceased people.
It seems clear to me that there is a false idea or expectation that a successful life means always being successful. Instead, learning to accept and even embrace painful emotions is an important part of a successful life.
Learning how painful emotions work is very important for performance orientation.
Emotional agility, i.e. the practice of not ignoring, trying to modify or control our emotions, especially the most painful ones, is a fundamental pillar in building an anti-fragile culture.
Rather, emotions are the multiple pieces that form the map that guides us in making decisions based on our values and goals, instead of reacting on impulse.
Can you recommend a first action to increase emotional agility in organisations?
Personally, I would recommend starting by designing a resource recruitment path that focuses extensively on the assessment of emotional agility, as well as emotional intelligence, as these skills are still largely undervalued in the personnel selection process. Hiring the wrong people is the fastest way to undermine an organisation that needs to thrive on chaos.
In fact, people who are able to understand and embrace their own emotions, as well as those of others, develop a greater immunity to fragile behaviour. As Susan David, author of the book ‘Emotional Agility’ states, the ability to not get stuck in the face of change, but to embrace it and thrive, both in life and at work, is one of the most critical skills we can have as human beings, as it affects every aspect of our lives, from personal relationships to our lifestyle, from parenting to our role as leaders within an organisation.
Ultimately, it is about how much care we have for ourselves and our inner world. The ability to have a healthy approach with ourselves and others, with our thoughts and emotions, is fundamental to developing a ‘mindset’ of continuous change for lasting success.