The Typhoon: A Fable of Leading through a Black Swan Event

Stormy at ocean



By Eric Michrowski

As we navigate through this Black Swan event, I keep being reminded of a book that had captured my attention in my youth. Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon presents the story of Captain MacWhirr, a practical leader of few words, and Jukes a youthful sea mate as they sail a newly built ship across the South China Sea.
Soon into the voyage, the barometer begins to fall rapidly. As the vessel advances into the storm, the savage ferocity of the winds, torrential rains and tempestuous seas begin to attack the ship with incredible force, nearly destroying it. The Captain maintains course.

When the typhoon strikes, Jukes begins thinking everything is lost and he despairs of surviving the experience. At the same time MacWhirr sticks stubbornly to the ‘right thing’ and finds practical solutions to the immediate problems. He does not allow himself to be deflected from the tasks required to maintain order.

In the midst of this incredible and life-threatening storm, they are presented with multiple onboard challenges including a passenger rebellion, a panicked second mate who attacks the Captain and workers fighting over money. All are handled with calm while maintaining focus.

Shortly after they emerge from the storm into calm seas, they realize that they are only in the eye of the storm and that they will have to make it through another assault on the ship. They finally make it safely into port.

Similar to MacWhirr and Jukes, leaders will need to remain calm and focused. Not everyone will necessarily be aligned with the direction that has been set but now is not the time to waffle. This crisis is not a time to practice participatory leadership and gaining consensus on all decisions. You do however always need to listen to feedback and ideas as these are uncharted waters and it’s too easy to make a critical error.

In navigating through this storm, it’s key to maintain the course you set for your business while always keeping focused on where you need to take your business and business model once the storm subsides. It might be too soon to have a clear picture and exact course but don’t just focus on the current storm otherwise you will never make it to a safe harbor. The destination will not look like where we came from. Don’t expect your business model to return to just the way it is yesterday.

Also, just like in the novel, while we are in the midst of a big storm and many businesses are fighting for their life, we don’t yet know what storm tomorrow might bring. It’s key to maintain enough energy and endurance to weather this storm and any possible subsequent waves.

Although this novel was not written about the current Black Swan event, it does present a useful parallel.