How to lead in a VUCA world
Author: David Evans
Much has been talked about the importance of leadership in the VUCA World. Indeed, I have explored this with numerous cohorts of learners over the last few years. What has always been interesting has been the discussion about the skills necessary to thrive in an environment when the traditional rules of engagement are degraded or no longer completely relevant.
Common themes which have emerged are:
- Personal resilience
- A more engaged and caring management / leadership style (built on trust)
- A greater understanding of the purpose and aims of various stakeholders
- Greater focus on the elements of followship and distributed leadership
- A recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to colleague motivation and engagement.
I have recently read a fascinating article* written by Trevor Hudson (senior learning business partner for King, the games and entertainment specialists), in which he explores the idea of 'organisational wisdom'. He defines this as the application of intelligence tempered with the influence of experience, and he sees its use as particularly helpful in the subversion of the ego in decision-making and in taking multiple perspectives when considering issues.
Indeed, Hudson summarises the research he has done into the topic by suggesting that role-models of what he calls post-conventional leaders tend to display most or all of the following characteristics:
- Making decisions incorporating a number of perspectives - being inclusive and diverse in arriving at decisions
- Managing complexity effectively - which requires a recognition and understanding of complexity
- Displaying deep self-awareness - for which making time for self-relfection is essential
- Being innovative - being willing and able to shift from conventionality when circumstances demand it
- Being transformational in approach - thinking strategicially and outside the box; taking the helicopter view
- Showing high empathy levels and a sense of universal care - recognising the humanity in their role
These capabilities when combined with my observations above form a compelling combination of attributes. The challenge that naturally follows in their acknowledgement is: how can organisations tap into these capabilities in a way which better protects them from unexpected, VUCA-style 'hits?'; and how can individuals who display some or all of these attributes be developed to build on these strengths?
These are killer-questions, since individuals with this suite of capabilities are generally hard to identify: few organisations, for example, spend enough time pinpointing the real high-fliers in their management cadre, often preferring to make subjective judgements or role-wide decisions about who should attend development programmes. Furthermore, the development of such individuals can take several years, which for many organisations does not deliver the expected ROI in a timely-enough fashion. Their development also requires the use of several complementary approaches including approaches like coaching, mentoring, work-secondment, the leadership of special projects and time out with peers to work on their self-awareness.
Finally, can any one organisation really offer such personal development opportunities? Given the time and the variety of learning required, it may be that the personal journey of these post-conventional leaders will have to take place across several organisations and may also include a sabbatical.
This is a fascinating challenge for L&D experts; one which demands more attention than it seems currently to enjoy. Developing those leaders with the potential to navigate their organisation and its people through the continuing choppy waters of uncertain times is, however, a critical imperative of our times.
* Hudson T.E. In pursuit of organisational wisdom; Assessment & Development Matters, vol. 11, no. 3 Autumn 2019