The Gray Rhino by Michele Wucker

In her new book, Michele Wucker considers a wide swath of disaster, from Hurricane Katrina to the Ebola crisis, to show how and why leaders avert looming danger until it’s too late.

First came The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who in 2007 wrote about rare, improbable catastrophes that people did not see coming and were unprepared to face — the First World War, the 1987 stock market crash, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, to name a few. Now we have The Gray Rhino by Chicago management consultant Michele Wucker, who writes about problems on the horizon that we should see coming but individually or collectively ignore, usually until it’s too late.

Seeking to understand why this is so, Wucker uses the metaphor of a rhinoceros, a big beast that should be easy to spot but can, if provoked, trample the unwary who refuse to get out of the way. The author considers a wide swath of disaster, from the 2008 financial crisis to the Haitian earthquake, from Hurricane Katrina to the Ebola crisis, and from hacked computer systems in the US to collapsed buildings in Bangladesh.

Two of the most instructive case studies provide an examination of how Portugal responded to the near-death experience of the cork industry and a comparison of how Argentina and Greece handled their debt debacles.

Of particular interest to Canadians is a look at Calgary’s great flood of 2013. In a chapter called “After the Trampling,” Wucker takes us back to the aftermath of the devastating flood Calgary lived through in 2005 and asks why more lessons were not learned.

POLITICS GETS IN THE WAY

After 2005, a task force recommended 18 measures to mitigate damage from future floods, many of which echoed a draft report written after floods in the late 1990s. While the city has done some things right — accolades go to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and the city’s Emergency Operations Centre — most of the recommendations in the report were ignored. The author’s analysis provides insight into how politics can get in the way of disaster preparedness, how hard it is to make credible predictions and how tough it can be to make the case for spending millions to prevent or curtail a disaster that may or may not happen.

“The decisions we make after a crisis are more likely to range from nothing to the shortsighted to the ineffectual and the bizarre,” Wucker writes, noting the countless millions who have been required to take off their shoes at airports since the infamous shoe bomber failed to bring down an airplane in 2001.

While the author has done a commendable amount of research, some readers may find her list of experts to be rather long and somewhat distracting. One minute we’re hearing words of wisdom from the late management guru Stephen Covey or Apple CEO Tim Cook and the next we’re considering historical figures such as King Xerxes of Persia or Joan of Arc. Or writers such as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Eugene Ionesco. There’s even a weigh-in by Mike Tyson. An array of studies and reports by professors, consultants and management theorists of all shapes and sizes sometimes makes for a dizzying read. A more finely honed reference list would have made for a more cogent result.

Still, the book provides plenty to chew on, especially for those in the field of risk management. For the rest of us, it can be a thought-provoking exercise to answer Wucker’s last question: “What are your gray rhinos?”

About the Author

Susan Smith


Susan Smith is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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