Greek mythology has relevance to the business risk industry, especially if you see yourself as a corporate Cassandra, trying to get your warnings heard

The mythology describes how Apollo, God of Light and Truth, bestowed on Cassandra the gift of prophecy.

However, when his advances were spurned, he ensured the gift remained and cursed her to have no one believe what she could foresee.

In the business risk industry, modern, corporate Cassandras have faced the same challenges as their namesake through the ages.

Richard Clarke re the corporate Cassandra with the Harvard Business Review

In an excellent interview with the Harvard Business Review, former US Presidential Counter Terrorism Adviser, Richard Clarke, covers the corporate Cassandra curse in his new book Warnings: Finding Cassandras to stop catastrophes.

The key themes of his book were, to me, very thought provoking and insightful, however, there were a couple of areas that I saw things from a slightly different perspective.

I want to provide an alternative perspective, which is, why do some Cassandra’s persist in keeping Apollo’s curse alive?

In the business risk industry, the biggest risk is not being heard

In any business environment, getting heard by decision makers is, even at the best of times challenging.

When that message presages bad news or is ‘game changing’, that challenge is even greater.

Whilst difficult, it is not impossible, even for a corporate Cassandra, and Richard highlights some excellent strategies for this.

However, from my experience, some Cassandra’s can be their own worst enemy, more due to their own actions than that of the organisation.

Whether in the public or private sector, internal and external messaging is very often subtle and rarely black and white.

Those who succeed in getting their message across are mindful of this aspect of corporate life and use it to their advantage.

My observation of some Cassandra’s is that they are so passionate about the issue they are trying to get across, they tend to be single minded in their pursuit of the issue.

There is a fine line between passion and zealotry when seeking to prosecute an argument and some can pursue an absolutist approach which causes partial victories to be missed.

My time as a corporate Cassandra

Having personally been a corporate Cassandra, I can understand how some would feel, as they exclaim, ‘but they are not getting it!’

I once benefitted from being stuck in gridlocked traffic for three hours with a senior executive from my company.

I discussed my issue with him (amongst other things).

He gave me excellent advice from the business end and, equipped with that feedback, I approached the issue through changes in policies earlier in the supply chain.

These relatively small changes did not fix the immediate issue, but they were significant enough to minimise future occurrences.

Thanks to heavy traffic, and advice from a business leader, I achieved a good compromise, which was better than when I had started the day.

How do you let Apollo back in?

I am sure Cassandra would, after a while, have loved to have had at least one person believe her prophecies.

So here are some tips that I feel would assist our modern day Cassandra’s in letting Apollo back in:

  • Cultivate a business ‘champion’ to discuss ideas and issues with
  • Recognise that just because you are passionate about it, not everyone else is – be realistic!
  • Gain a picture of the business climate (and imperative) – frame your argument and solutions within that context
  • Big things can come from little changes – have a strategy geared to achieve the optimum outcome

Remember, a small victory is still a victory.


Image: Woodcut illustration of Cassandra’s prophecy of the fall of Troy (at left) and her death (at right) by POP via Flickr. Public domain.
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