The challenge of leading in VUCA times

Did you know that fish don’t know they’re in water? Fish are surrounded by water from birth and as a result they don’t see the water. If you tried to explain to a fish that they live in water you’d probably hear them say, “Water? What is water?”. As fish live in water it’s impossible for them to see it. Living in water is all they know.

To get fish to see the water in which they live, you need to help them step outside their environment. Only then, looking in from the outside will they finally see the water in which they live.

It’s the same for leaders!

Leaders struggle to see the environment or the context in which they find themselves.

When leaders fail to recognise the context in which they’re leading bad things happen. They apply outdated leadership practices. They blindly repeat the ideas and practices based lead to yesterday’s success. For example many leaders still rely on command-and-control as their primary style of leadership. A paradigm that no longer fits in today’s VUCA world.

The term VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity and originates from a 1998 report from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The report was designed to train officers for leadership in the twenty-first century. VUCA perfectly describes the environment and context in which leaders work today.

Let’s explore each of the elements of VUCA.

Volatile – Rapid large scale change

Volatility refers to the rate of change we experience from the environment. Today the pace of change is unrelenting its rapid and demands a rapid response. Looking forward it becomes clear that the current pace of change shows no signs of slowing down.

Leadership Challenges

  • The pace of change is more rapid than our ability to respond.
  • The increased pace of change requires accelerated decision making.
  • The kind of change experience today is large scale, occurs suddenly and usually requires a rapid response.
  • Leaders quickly become overwhelmed, stressed, anxious. Making them unprepared to lead effectively.
  • The challenge for leaders is to learn to respond to change more effectively.
  • Command and control structures fail in fast changing and disruptive environments.

Uncertain – Unclear about present and future outcomes

Uncertainty refers to the difficultly that leaders face in getting clarity as to what is actually going on. There’s too much information. Too much noise. This results in opposing views and opinions as to what’s happening. This makes decision-making difficult as leaders cannot be certain as to the current business context and its future direction.

Leadership Challenges

  • Leaders find it difficult to get a handle on what’s actually happening.
  • Leaders are then required to act on incomplete or insufficient information.
  • Leaders are more likely to rely on practices and solutions that have worked in the past.

Complex – Many factors to consider no single causes or solutions

Complexity describes the situation where a multitude of factors are the cause the situation. There’s a web of interlinking cause and effects. This makes it difficult to diagnose a situation and to formulate effective response. The interdependence of industry supply chains. The globalisation of business. Both have contributed significantly to the increased complexity of the environment in which leaders have to operate.

Leadership Challenges

  • Difficulty in taking action and initiating change, due to a complex web of interrelated issues and concerns
  • Increased complexity makes it difficult to know where to start to initiate change.
  • Leaders become shortsighted and are tempted to implement short-term solutions and over-rely on quick wins. The result is a failure to address the root cause of problems.
  • Leaders lack the time necessary to reflect and think through the complexities facing them and end up acting too quickly.
  • Leader face the constant threat of getting stuck in analysis paralysis and end up acting too late.

Ambiguous – Lack of clarity on what events mean and the impact they may have

Ambiguity makes if difficult to understand the impact and meaning of events. The continuous unfolding of events makes if difficult to understand and interpret the impact events will have on society, economics and business.

Leadership Challenges

  • Failure to understand the significance of an event
  • High risk of miss-interpreting events and responding inappropriately of in ineffective ways
  • Leaders are too far removed from the source and context of the events
  • Leaders act based on a limited understanding of events and their meaning

The Implications of VUCA on Leadership

It’s clear that we are leading in challenging times. The problem is that our leadership approaches and practices have not kept pace with this new context.

“We are in a new world, using old tools” – Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat

We are stuck using old leadership tools. No wonder we find it difficult to solve the problems of today.

“The rapidity of change in social conventions and moral attitudes, associated with technological transformations in the mode of living, renders a person’s experience of the world a generation ago largely irrelevant to the problems of the day.” – E.J. Mishan, Costs of Economic Growth

Successful leadership requires an understanding of the leadership context in which we find ourselves. As leaders we need to become more aware of the VUCA leadership context. In this ways we can learning to apply the right leadership style and practice to the right situation. We can learn to be open to new ways of leading and new ways of working.

What new leadership practice have you adopted in the last few months?