Into the Wild: This Author Can Help Your Company Avoid the Elephant in the Room

It's time to pay attention to "gray rhinos," says policy expert Michele Wucker

Michele Wucker.

Michele Wucker. Photo by Hal Shipman

It’s not just a book, it’s a new way of thinking about the world’s problems. Michele Wucker, former president of the World Policy Institute and author of the new book The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore, has set about to change the way policymakers think about problems, from climate change to the housing bubble. She’s even founded a firm to promote her ideas, Gray Rhino and Company. Ms. Wucker has previously written on the history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic and the American management of immigration issues. The Gray Rhino will be released by St. Martin’s Press on April 5. I spoke with Ms. Wucker on video call from her Chicago office.

So, what is a “gray rhino”?

A gray rhino is the big, scary thing that’s right in front of you with the big horn that’s coming at you—very hard to ignore—but somehow we manage to ignore anyway. It’s related to the elephant in the room, but the elephant in the room stands still and we all take for granted that the elephant in the room is not gonna get attention, nobody’s going to say anything, nobody’s going to do anything. We felt that the language needed a more active concept, so the gray rhino’s coming at you… The gray rhino gives you a choice: you can either stand there and get flattened, or you can get out of the way, and ideally not just get out of the way but use the gray rhino to use the opportunity to see whatever the next steps are in your business, in your life, in your policy.

You mention black swans and also elephants in the room in your book. Is the gray rhino an amalgamation of those two things, or is it a separate concept unto itself? How does it fit into the broader world of animals both colorful and silent? 

I sometimes refer to the gray rhino as the lovechild of the black swan and the elephant in the room. It’s really funny how the gray rhinos hang out with all other sorts of suspicious characters: you have evil monkeys, you have the ostrich with the head in the sand. And I was struck by how many of these images were out there that take for granted that we’re not going to do something, that describe these processes of putting your head in the sand and not paying attention: see no, hear no, speak no evil… The black swan I thought was a very important addition because Nassim Nicholas Taleb was saying, “hey! Pay attention!” The problem is that by definition black swans are improbable, unpredictable… What if, instead, we had an image, a metaphor, that helped us to focus on what we know is right in front of us but we’re not dealing with? So that’s where the gray rhino came from.

The Gray Rhino, out April 5.

The Gray Rhino, out April 5. (Photo: Courtesy Michele Wucker)

What are some examples of gray rhinos? How can we take those challenges and use them as opportunities?

Some of the big ones at the 30,000 foot level are things like climate change, inequality, like financial crises, but the concept also applies to companies or businesses—any sort of organization or industries. And you can even use the concept at a personal level… The first thing you do to figure out how to get out of the way of a gray rhino is to figure out where it’s at. There are are five stages, the first one being denial. When I realized the first one was denial, there had to be five, as flattery to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. So denial is the first stage. Not everyone is maybe in denial, but you need to figure out how many people are in denial and just how much recognition there is of the gray rhino.

The second stage is muddling, when you know it’s there and you’re talking about it but you’re coming up with reasons not to do anything about it. And there are all sorts of reasons for that, and you need to analyze why: is it the resources issue? Is it a political issue? Is it the structure of the system? The third phase is diagnosing, kind of like blaming. What’s the real cause of the problem and the other part is figuring out how fast the rhino is moving, how connected it is to other rhinos, how clear or murky the solution is, or what the potential cost is of not doing something and the potential cost of fixing it, and that helps you to prioritize if you’ve got more than one in front of you.

The next stage, which you want to avoid if you can possibly do it, is panic. That’s when you’ve sort of let things go too far. It’s sort of the top of a market bubble when people are a little bit scared but they just keep buying, then on the way down they go down even faster than they went up. And when we’re in a panic stage, we’re not as good at making decisions as we are when the threat’s not right on top of us. And the panic can be a good thing; it’s what sometimes gives you the momentum to do something, because really reacting is an emotional thing.

‘I was amazed when I was writing the book to discover that the zoological term for a herd of rhinos is a crash, and I thought, “how delicious!”‘

And then action sometimes happens before everything goes to hell, and sometimes—unfortunately—afterwards. But the thing about action is: who has the power to change this? Who’s going to do what? Do you have the power to prevent the gray rhino from happening or do you just have the power to get people out of the way? So really the important part of the gray rhino is that you recognize it, and once you’ve done that you can ask the kind of questions that will help you get out of the mess. Just recognizing the gray rhino isn’t enough to solve the problem but if you don’t recognize it, and if don’t start asking these questions, it’s pretty darn sure that you’re not going to get out of the way.

One of the examples that you use was the housing bubble. It seems like hindsight is 20/20 in this area. How many of these things are actually as obvious as your definition of ‘gray rhino’ would imply before they occurred? 

With the housing crisis… it’s very clear that a lot of people knew it was coming. You had people like Christine Lagarde coming out and saying “we’re facing a financial tsunami.” It was really obvious to me when I bought an apartment on the Upper West Side in 2000 and sold it for almost twice as much four years later. And the reason I sold it is I said, “look, if this doubles in four years, what goes up has to come down.” Pretty much anyone in the Manhattan housing market should have known, or any of the other bubble housing markets in the rest of the country.

What I think people didn’t see enough of at that time was how several different converging sets of ignored crises came together. I think the huge scale of the economic disruptions at the time, I don’t think that anyone predicted exactly the nature of that or that it would be just as big as it was. But that’s why it’s important to see if your gray rhino is related to other ones, because any time you see a black swan, there’s probably a crash of gray rhinos right behind it. I was amazed when I was writing the book to discover that the zoological term for a herd of rhinos is a crash, and I thought, “how delicious!” That is so appropriate and perfect, I couldn’t have made it up better.

You mentioned that there are a lot of different sizes of gray rhinos. Can you think of any in everyday life that many people will have to cope with?

I think some common ones that apply to all kinds of people are, are you unhappy with what you’re doing? Are you paying attention to your health? I’ve had a couple of very serious health gray rhinos that took way too long to deal with. I also learned that there are some times when you need to learn to say, “you know what? Just let the gray rhino keep running.” The best thing to do is actually to let it trample you. In personal lives, it’s a case of “a window closes, a door opens.” Generally, if something’s not working, it’s because there’s something else really great around the corner. In business it’s called creative destruction. One technology becomes obsolete and is replaced by another one, and that’s one of the very biggest corporate gray rhinos that’s out there.

‘By changing the language to say that we’ve got a choice to deal with the elephant in the room or whatever scary thing is in front of us, that’s a very different way of thinking about things’

My first thought looking at your book’s cover was “oh god, what sort of depressing environmental tale am I about to read?” With only three northern white rhinos left in the world, is the threat to actual rhinos itself a gray rhino? 

The threat of extinction of rhinos in our lifetimes is very real and quite tragic. I felt like I might have done the rhinoceros a bit of a disservice by portraying it as the danger, the scary thing. But that actually ended up playing in very well to the metaphor: we’re more of a gray rhino to the rhinos than they are to us, and if you look at rhinos not as foes but as friends, you can actually work with that. Interestingly, in Africa and other places that have large populations of rhinos, of elephants, of hippos, whatever other animals, when they have recognized that there is economic value to keeping them alive and preserving them, they’ve made that same sort of switch. Animals that used to be seen as predators or destroyers were now seen as a resource that could attract tourists and basically give people a way to have a job and feed their families.

What sort of messages would you want a business leader or political leader reading your book to take away from it? 

I want the major message to be that we need better ways on focusing on problems that are right in front of us and we need better ways of prioritizing them and figuring out how to get the right people on board to make change happen, to fix a problem and turn a problem into a solution. The other big message is that many problems also offer a solution. If you flip a situation over, you find the opportunity. You’re not dealing with something scary anymore, you’re dealing with something that you can bring back to your constituents later and say, “hey, see what I did!”… Really, the central message of the book is an empowering one. By changing the language to say that we’ve got a choice to deal with the elephant in the room or whatever scary thing is in front of us, that’s a very different way of thinking about things… I’m hoping Mayor [Bill] de Blasio and some of the key players in New York City think of the concept and how it might be applied there.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.