There are many possible threats to our society, our economy, our local community, and to us personally that are not worth worrying about, and many that are completely unpredictable (which makes worrying about them unproductive). But what about threats that are inevitable (though the timing may be unclear) and serious enough to warrant worrying?

The poster child for this type of threat is climate change. We’ve known about it for decades, we know it’s serious and will only get worse, but in spite of that, not nearly enough has been done to address it.

It is this type of serious-but-ignored threat that is the subject of Michele Wucker’s 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore. Wucker calls these threats “Gray Rhinos”, a reference to the “black swans” of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2007 book of that name. Taleb’s black swans are completely unpredictable (think of the attack on the World Trade Center) whereas Wucker’s Gray Rhinos are very predictable, but people are unwilling to think about them.

It turns out that Gray Rhinos are common. We have some examples of them right here at Kendal. They represent bad things that are almost certain to happen. As Wucker puts it, “The question is not if but when a Gray Rhino will happen.”

What are some Gray-Rhino issues? Wucker’s examples include water shortages, unrest resulting from income disparity, problems of youth unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, pandemics, cyber attacks, and the disruptive effects of 3D printing. (Remember, this was published in 2016, before Covid, before the California drought, and before the 2022 infrastructure bill.)

Wucker’s examples are national and international in scope, and many of them are from the business world. But we can all think of personal examples of Gray Rhinos: failing to address signs of health problems, not investigating symptoms of problems with a house or car, not being willing to back out of a bad investment until it’s too late.

Gray Rhinos close to home. Reading the book made me think about some of the Gray-Rhino issues that Kendal may be facing. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Have we let our deer problems go for too long?
  • Do we have plans in place if a multi-year housing-price collapse makes Kendal unaffordable to new residents?
  • In what ways might Kendal be vulnerable to more extreme weather resulting from climate change?

These are all issues that many of our residents and administrators are aware of, and I imagine most readers can think of a dozen more.

What can we do to deal with all these Gray Rhinos? Wucker suggests six steps:

  1. Recognize the Rhino.  Don’t deny that it exists. “If there is a reasonable chance that something bad will happen in a reasonable time frame, it qualifies as a probable danger that you need to deal with,” Wucker writes. Too often, “we don’t ask questions for which we don’t really want to know the answers.”
  2. Define the Rhino. Wucker writes, “How you diagnose and frame a problem makes the difference in whether you get people to respond and whether that response will work.” If you can show that the cost or trouble to change something now is far less than it will be when you are actually dealing with a crisis, action is more likely.
  3. Don’t stand still. Even if you can’t make big changes, you may be able to make small ones that will help. For many years, KCC did well with variable-rate debt until interest rates rose and caused our recent debt payments to climb sharply. But it would have been far worse if KCC had not taken the small step of purchasing interest-rate caps, which limited its exposure to the high rates.
  4. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Sometimes, the best time to make a change is in response to a disaster. Be on the lookout for those opportunities. Wucker uses the example of the great Chicago fire. It was a major disaster (and one that had, in fact, been foreseen), but it resulted in important changes to fire-safety regulations as well as the creation of the huge Grant Park, a gem of Chicago’s lakefront.
  5. Stay downwind. Keep scouting for Gray Rhinos. Avoid the “groupthink” and perverse incentives that can keep us from doing the right thing. At the least, we must take the time to do some preliminary planning for each Gray Rhino we can identify, even if the planning just consists of a page or two of bullet points.
  6. Be a Rhino spotter and become a Rhino keeper. “Heading off a crisis starts with a rhino spotter: one person who recognizes an obvious danger that others ignore and speaks up,” Wucker writes. She emphasizes that persistence is needed to maintain awareness of the problem and to persuade others that action is necessary. That’s the role of the Rhino keeper. “It takes courage to put yourself out there and sacrifice to avoid a disaster, whether as part of a company or as an individual, or as a citizen of a community, nation, or the world.”

Don’t neglect “purpose”. Wucker also emphasizes the need to look past short-term business metrics to focus on “the sense of purpose that drives long-term value.” Kodak, for example, lost sight of its purpose (the preservation of valuable images) and focused exclusively on the profitable field of making film. It failed to address the issue of digital photography until it was too late, even though it had been aware of the threat for many years.

Kendal has a history of making decisions with its purpose in mind, and it needs to maintain that long-term focus. If Kendal’s “product” were to become a commodity—offering an environment and services similar to what other CCRCs offer—that would not only mean a major loss to Kendal residents, it would also be a blow to Kendal’s marketing, which relies heavily on word-of-mouth recommendations to identify prospective residents who are looking for exactly what Kendal has.

What are the unique features that Kendal offers? Harry Hammond touched on some aspects of Kendal’s uniqueness in his recent presentation about “The Founders’ Vision”. Also, I attempted to list many of the key elements in a previous blog post. Perhaps those two blog posts can provide suggestions about Kendal’s true purpose and how it can provide guidance for the future. A sense of that purpose and a willingness to pay attention to the Gray Rhinos on the horizon are both necessary if Kendal is to successfully navigate the difficulties it faces in the years ahead.