Volatile weather

The term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) has been with us for a while now. Coined by the US Army War College in the ’90s, it was swiftly adopted by business to describe the ‘white water’ (or hurricane?) change environment we now enjoy.

It has always left me with the nagging question ‘so what’? It is not enough, and has not been enough, simply to describe the thing. If there exists a military ‘cure’, this has eluded take up in business so far, for the most part. Certainly in my own military experience in the British Army, we were taught to appreciate a situation dynamically, to set a direction and a plan, and then innovate the plan as it unfolded, which seems to me to be a reasonable response to a VUCA environment, and yet I have struggled to land these concepts in a business world preset to a management default.

In the leadership development sector, it is widely acknowledged the field has suffered from its own VUCA experience, having been slow to respond to the needs of leaders struggling to make an impact in a world where technology and technological thinking has outstripped the 20th Century models for money-making through efficiency. HBR in 2014 described the problem below:

Far from being a complex and ambiguous answer, the solution to VUCA is a deceptively simple one, because the equation is simple. In a disrupted, VUCA environment, the skill we need is leadership. Governments are currently conjuring with this as they attempt to make the transition from the predictable world of super-states and economic blocs to the rising appetite for independence and sovereignty – which is in itself also a (backward) VUCA response in the population. Welfare-state thinking in the West is limiting the ability of leaders to innovate nations, whilst in the East they can leapfrog at will.

The skill and the habit we have been used to is management, and leadership has been somewhat annoying, even though we simultaneously knew it might come in useful one day. How does leadership differ from management? Leadership exists to bring about newness and change, and change is a consequence of effective leadership. Management exists to make existing things more efficient and reliable, and reliability is a consequence of effective management. The leadership development industry has allowed these two polar opposites to become fatally confused, which is why it now struggles to make impact. The phrase ‘change management’ for example, is one such contradiction in terms.

The answer to VUCA has been with us for a while, in the shape of Transformational Leadership. There are a cluster of highly researched, highly validated behaviours that, taken together, exemplify the kind of leadership that allow us to willingly follow a change-making leader, rather than simply comply to their wishes (Ref: Bass & Avolio, Kouzes & Posner, Collins, Goffee & Jones, etc). The critical difference in impact is our engagement into that cause; our engagement into that cause defined by the quality of leadership.

The rift is best exemplified by talking about types of cultures and how innovation is dealt with, using good data: Google vs. Nokia, SpaceX vs. NASA, that sort of thing. It is now widely understood that culture, climate, mindset, ways of thinking, and ability to innovate are crucial differentiators. Large legacy businesses with a surfeit of managers are struggling to make the transition, and even when they recruit transformational leaders can suffer tissue rejection of them, such is their level of entrenchment. New start-ups are all the rage not just because of their technology pattern but also because they can intentionally set their culture from a blank sheet, even though they can be made up of senior folk with a heritage of large legacy organisations.

How do we release our Transformational Leadership skills? At Holos we have developed from this research a VICA response to the VUCA world:

Chief amongst this level of development is examination of context, or Megatrends. How do we better understand the context in which we must lead? How does that context, and hence the leadership requirement, change over time? How do I maintain my horizon-scanning, thinking time, bandwidth for innovation? How do I devolve that so I inculcate leadership practice in others? The unexamined context is a context that will overtake you pretty swiftly, after all.

Next, the VICA qualities must work in tandem with each other, like a hand, rather than be viewed as a checklist of behaviour. The hand without one or another digit does not work as well, and our facility or skill in applying behaviour to context comes into play. Innovation, Collaboration and Accountability just give us more to do unless guided by a Vision. Vision, Innovation and Accountability only perpetuate silos unless we also Collaborate, and so on. In the VUCA world, interdependence (rather than dependence or independence) of skill and on each other is a crucial success factor.

This brings us to our last concept; one of perspective, or maturity. Combining the VICA approach with an examination of personal perspective has the capacity to stretch us ‘vertically’ into more and more interdependent, and eventually integral, spheres of operation. The truly transformational leader operates interdependently at whole system level, bringing together and unifying concepts and ways of working, design thinking, cultural attributes, alignment and organisational impact. We have learned since the early nineties that people are as important as profit – that it is people who make the profit in the end. The quality of our people will predict the quality of our products, services, and bottom line. In the future, an organisation that does not have the planet at least equal in importance to people and profit will also fail. Seeing the system of interdependence at an inter-species or planetary level will enable forward-thinking organisations to far outlast extractive, short-term ones.

It is these principles, seen in the most progressive organisations, that have left behind governments and supra-national bodies, who are now having to catch up with situations beyond their control. Brexit, the US elections, Iraq & Afghanistan, the EU, the UN, the Arab Spring and many other examples all point to a laggard political leadership. Government the world over is in catch-up mode, with technology and business both leading the field and setting the tone for what is possible.

In our recent work at Holos we have been developing these principles of leadership development with clients in dynamic and applied ways. The results are extremely promising, with the possibility to almost instantly re-write organisational approaches to leadership and change. Used with interdependence, VICA is a useful and powerful tool for any organisation to meet the challenges of this VUCA environment by getting ahead, rather than simple response.

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