Attack the System: Embracing the Chaos Monkey

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

How many times have you heard “I’m frustrated with the system!” or “the system failed us”? Too many times to count, I’m sure. That’s because the reality is we’re surrounded by, even filled with, countless complex systems. The question ultimately becomes, how do we lead within, through, even around so many multi-faceted, pre-existing systems?

Let’s key-in on leadership, as leadership is ultimately about systems. Whether leading from within, tackling the intrapersonal juggernaut of behavioral change or simply leading a nuclear-powered warship into international waters, a system, of some sort, is inevitably in place.

Recognizing the correlation between leadership and the context of the system you are leading within is unquestionably a pivotal point in an effective leader’s maturity. Yet being aware of this relationship is merely the beginning, albeit an imperative jump-off. Great leaders not only understand the context of their leadership paradigm but strive to perpetually improve upon the system they either created, adopted or had forced upon them.

I have become increasingly fascinated with Nassim Taleb’s (@nntaleb) Antifragility ideology, having first ran across it reading Buster Benson’s Live Like a Hydra (found here: Ultimately, Taleb’s concepts are anything but groundbreaking; however, the universal theme is indelible: systems grow stronger after effective leaders analyze and react to failure. In @Buster’s post, he highlights how Netflix took a proactive approach to protecting its online streaming system from continuous crashes by literally attacking its own system. Netflix engineers essentially created a server-crashing program, coined the Chaos Monkey, designed to bombast their own system looking for holes and weaknesses. This antifragile approach exercises Netflix’s proverbial system muscles through strenuous attempts at burning down their own platform. Therefore, thanks to the Chaos Monkey we get to enjoy non-stop, uninterrupted episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia because Netflix had the wherewithal to attack itself first, only to restructure the weak spots and advance even stronger.

Or, how about the classic climax of 8 Mile, where Eminem’s upstart rapper persona B-Rabbit, in the epic final rap battle, verbally attacks himself first — stripping away his opponent’s anticipated ammunition — before delivering an onslaught of verbal napalm to the fever-pitched delight of a frenzied audience and an outright stunned Papa Doc.

Antifragility and tools like the Chaos Monkey are not solely for Fortune 500 companies with miles of humming servers and Grammy-winning hip-hop legends. In fact, after my alcohol-free metanoia, I made an unyielding commitment to fitness that would serve as my personal Chaos Monkey. Weightlifting for me has now expanded beyond a mere fitness regimen used to tighten-up my spare tire — I now use resistance training as a specific tool to attack my physical and mental systems, sharpening them as I account for weaknesses in the body while reflecting in the mind. Muscles gain strength only after experiencing failure (tears in fibers grow back more durable), as the mind clears while the neurotransmitter dopamine releases during a workout. The result is a stronger body and a sharper mind, an orchestrated and anticipated outcome of attacking my own system.

Serving as an assistant principal in an urban high school nestled firmly in Nashville’s most impoverished zip code, I am constantly charged with evaluating, analyzing and updating the school’s operational system. From building maintenance to school security, from teaching and learning to community outreach, one of my key roles is to ensure the synergy between the integral parts within the system is optimized. Having mentored under Executive Principal Dr. Ron L. Woodard (@Champion4Chldrn) for the past several years, his lasting expression on a school’s system stays with me: “Students will show you where your weaknesses are.” This simple yet profound approach to organizational structure impacts each aspect of our school’s system. If classes are generally unruly or quiet to the point of zero-activity, there’s a good chance you have kinks in your teaching and learning system. If the school’s hallways are crowded and loud during class time, it is obvious there’s a breakdown in the school security system. If only a handful of parents or guardians attend Open House, there’s a major disconnect in the school’s community outreach system.

Furthermore, I would be remiss if I did not highlight the correlation between antifragility and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. Whether building a new system from scratch or charged with managing an existing one, the way we perceive and respond to adversity as it applies to our system is make-or-break. Systems gain strength from resistance but only when we perceive adversity as an asset — a paradigm shift for most. And, attacking our own system proves fruitful only after we learn from the outcomes and apply change based on intense reflection.

Systems may be the most ubiquitous, albeit transparent, constructs on the planet, and our attempt to craft or reform these systems lies largely in our ability to recognize not only the functionality of these systems but also our personal role in the advancement of this functionality. The latter being quite possibly our greatest mission as an ever-growing number of young professionals seek to reform established, broken systems while simultaneously working within them. The question, however, remains: Will we have the courage and tenacity to attack our own systems for the sake of the greater good?

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