Fish don’t know they’re in water. Fish are surrounded by water at all times. They’re used to living in water, it’s all they know, so it becomes impossible for them to see it! To get fish to see the water you’d need to help them step outside their environment. Only then would they be able to look from the outside-in and see the water.
It’s the same for leaders. We cannot see the environment or the context in which we lead. When leaders fail to recognise the context in which they’re leading bad things happen. We apply outdated leadership practices. We blindly repeat the ideas and practices that lead to yesterday’s success.
The result? Leadership failure!
It’s becoming more and more difficult to apply yesterday’s leadership practices to today’s problems. Why? Because the context has shifted. We now live in a VUCA world and this changes everything!
VUCA: The Leadership Context
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. VUCA describes the new environment, the new context in which leaders work today.
Let’s explore each of the elements of this new VUCA world in turn.
Volatile – Rapid Large Scale Change
Volatility refers to the rate of change we experience from the environment. Today the pace of change is unrelenting it’s rapid and demands an urgent response from leaders. Looking forward it becomes clear that the current pace of change shows no signs of slowing down.
- The pace of change is more rapid than our ability to respond.
- The increased pace of change requires accelerated decision making.
- Change is large scale, occurs suddenly and usually requires an urgent response.
- Leaders quickly become overwhelmed, stressed, anxious and 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 with getting clarity as to what is actually going on. There is an overload of information and noise, complicated by opposing views and opinions as to what’s actually happening. This makes decision-making difficult as leaders cannot be certain as to the current business context and its future direction.
- Leader 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 that account for the situation being faced, that there is 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 and the globalization of business has contributed significantly to the complexity of the environment in which leaders have to operate.
- 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 that events will have on society, economics and business.
- 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 stuck using old leadership tools, practices and therefore unable to effectively solve problems. The result is failed leadership, disillusionment and frustration.
“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. Over the next few decades a new set of leadership practices and skills will need to be adopted. Leaders need to rethink their leadership approach.
Considering the VUCA world of today and the challenge this has for leaders.
- How should we start leading differently?
- What leadership practices have you found to be successful for leading in turbulent times?
- What new leadership skills will be required?