“In times of rapid change,
experience could be your worst enemy!”

-J. Paul Getty

It’s been a volatile week!  Twenty candidates are debating amongst themselves to see which one can emerge to debate the sitting President.  North Korea continues to launch missiles (not to worry because they are only short range).  A popular sailing destination (the Inner Harbor) is now part of a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess, and I’m told a perfect summer storm situation is brewing for market correction as trade war simmers and more action is awaited from the Fed.  Oh, for simpler times!

Do you remember the 1980”s  I certainly do; I was a young father a few years into my career as a school administrator.  The decade was marked by a focus on materialism and consumerism, the rise of the “Yuppie”, and the emergence of cable TV networks like MTV; which introduced the music video and launched the careers of music greats like Madonna, who reminded us that we were, in fact, “Living in a Material World” The world was changing and so was America as it tired of inflation, foreign policy turmoil, and rising crime.  With the election of Ronald Reagan the country embraced a new social, economic and political conservatism better known as “Reaganomics” – where prosperity is enhanced through the reduction of taxes and the promotion of unrestricted free market activity.  One might say we had returned to a simpler time; one in which there was greater certainty, predictability and order. Fast forward to 2019, we’ve elected a President who certainly embraces “Reaganomics”, but those simpler days are a thing of the past. 

Nearly two decades ago, the Army War College coined an acronym to capture the nature of an increasingly unpredictable and dynamic world. They called it VUCA—an environment of nonstop: 

  • Volatility – the speed of change in an industry, market, or the world in general.

  • Uncertainty – the extent to which we can confidently predict the future. 

  • Complexity –  the number of factors that we need to take into account, their variety, and the relationships between them. 

  • Ambiguity – a lack of clarity about how to interpret something. 

It’s not going away.  Change promises to speed up, not slow down.  To thrive in a world where “change is the only constant,” leaders need to replace old thinking with a new framework.  We live in a world in which many of the time-honored approaches to leadership and solving problems are no longer applicable.  A new form of leadership thought has emerged; one requiring a new skills set and thought patterns that will produce solutions that are effective and efficient.

Upon arriving in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal noted,  “Change is disruptive and frightening. People and organizations develop habits and cultures based upon what has worked in the past, they grow confident in proven solutions and what worked before becomes the default solution.  Process guarantees predictable competence – and it is comfortable.”  McChrystal found this when he took charge of the special forces command in Afghanistan.  “We were great at what we did – indeed, unequalled – but we weren’t right for what needed to be done.”  McChrystal recognized the need to adapt the leadership approach being used on the battlefield.  No less is true for leaders on and off the battlefield today.  “We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve, to a world of dilemmas, which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement of uncertainty.” (Denise Caron).  So what skills are needed for this new world?

Paul Kisinger and Karen Walch,  professors and researchers at Arizona State’s Thunderbird School of Global Management,  have tackled this challenge and proposed a new leadership paradigm they call, “VUCA Prime”, wherein:  

  1. Vision serves to mitigate volatility.  Leaders provide a clear-cut master statement of where an organization is headed, and equally important, assure their intent is communicated and understood.

  2. Understanding supersedes uncertainty.   Leaders demonstrate the deliberate ability to “stop, look, and listen.”  When faced with uncertain situations, leaders seek fresh perspectives and remain flexible with regard to solutions.

  3. Clarity serves to checkmate complexity.  This is a deliberate effort to, “make sense of the chaos”.  When faced with complexity, leaders need to make sure to collaborate with others and stop seeking permanent solutions.  Nothing is permanent or perfect in a rapidly changing environment.

  4. Agility addresses ambiguity.  Agility reflects a leader’s ability to communicate across people and organizations instantly and to move quickly in applying solutions. When confronted by ambiguity, leaders need to listen well, think divergently, and set up incremental dividends.  Social networks are a valuable tool for this purpose as they quickly enable the engagement and insights of many.

This approach to leadership requires a mindset shift that embraces mindfulness, collaboration and communication.  Research reveals that the keys to successful leadership in a VUCA world require the knowledge and ability to:

  • Create a vision and make sense of a world that is truly “global” in every sense of the word.

  • Understand one’s own and others’ values and intentions.  This means having a core ability to know “what you want to be” and “where you want to go” at all times, even while being open to multiple ways to get there.

  • Seek clarity regarding yourself and equally important seek sustainable relationships and solutions.  Leading in turbulence demands the ability to utilize all facets of the human mind, and to capitalize on relationships that will continue to exist in the face of crisis.

  • Practice agility, adaptability and buoyancy. Much like sailing, this means the responsive and resilient ability to prepare, balance and sometimes right yourself to ride out those storms that cannot be avoided, and likewise to set the sails quickly to seize advantage of winds that can be harnessed.

  • Develop and engage your social networks. The days of the single “great leader” are gone. In the VUCA world, the best leaders are the ones who harness leadership from everyone.

In times of rapid change and complexity, it can be difficult to envision bold new futures with any certainty. Past practice would dictate that we begin with what is known, gather data, analyze results and project.  That will no longer work.  Peter Fisk, a global business thought leader on leadership, growth, innovation, and marketing believes every leader needs to be a futurist that seeks the opportunity to be found in a VUCA world.  “ Futurists discipline themselves to question the status quo. They regularly scan external trends, adjacent industries and underlying forces. They consider diverse perspectives. And they boldly tell stories about the future before all of the data is available to back it up.

Change is challenging.  Rapid change can be overwhelming, however change brings us new opportunities.  What opportunities are awaiting you?  What stories will you be telling about the future? 

Embrace the Challenge and Embrace the Opportunity!