The turbulence of change is so commonplace these days that the business world has adopted the label VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – from the military, who originally coined the term to describe the conditions they were facing in places like Afghanistan.
VUCA conditions can leave us feeling bad and even guilty that we’re not meeting expectations – our own and others. One client said she felt like a salmon working incredibly hard to get upstream to fulfil its goal, unable to stop swimming hard or she would go backwards. Buffeted by rapids – of too many projects and tasks; swirled in slow currents – of indecision by bosses; predated by bears – or competitive colleagues in the company and industry. Hard work for little progress and really wondering if the goal was worth all this effort.
Does this resonate with you? Do you respond by keeping your head down and hoping it will all work out okay? Would you rather take the initiative and feel some sense of control?
Events are occurring at a pace and with an impact that is difficult to foresee. A good example of a VUCA event is the Brexit referendum. No-one, including the leave campaigners expected the country to vote out. So when it happened no-one was prepared to deal with the consequences, throwing the country into even more uncertainty and ambiguity than before.
In these challenging conditions how can you be the person you want to be? How can you lead self, in order to be able to lead others?
My recommendation is to turn VUCA on its head and see things from an empowering and optimistic perspective. To be a leader in a VUCA world you need Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility.
Vision and Values go hand-in-hand to generate a strong sense of self and what you stand for. Identify what is important to you in life – the top 5 values by which you run your personal programming. Then seek to bring these values more into your everyday. A core value of mine is ‘creativity’ and I’m always looking for new ways of doing things. What would yours be?
Then think about your Vision for life – what are you aiming to create? This might be an overall vision for how you want to be in the world or it could be your vision for a specific area such as your job or a project you’re leading or a community you’re involved in.
Understanding: The key skill here is sense-making, good emotional intelligence will help here. Rational sense – take the facts and understand the detail; and Emotional sense – empathise with those involved, seeing how they perceive the situation. Put this in context and look ahead and see what is coming down the line. It’s a good idea to involve others so you make sense together with all the relevant input. Keep an open mind as there’s often more than one way to interpret a situation.
Clarity: There is so much ‘noise’ out there we need to be able to cut through it with concise, precise communication in order to present a clear picture that others can follow. Distractions are constant and people’s attention span shorter than ever, so leaders need to grab attention and inspire and motivate people to take the desired action. When people buy-in to what you’re trying to do, they can make decisions and act with confidence that they will move towards that goal in the right way.
Agility: The phrase “the only constant is change” highlights that leaders need to be flexible and adapt to emerging information and changes in circumstances. This demands resilience to deal with knock-backs on one hand and on the other, creativity and the willingness to innovate and do things differently. Leaders can no longer afford to stick to ‘tried and trusted ways’ as these rapidly become outdated, but need to keep an open mind and collaborate with others to find new ways of doing things.
Leading with these VUCA qualities is something we can all learn to do – all that is required is a growth mindset (that is an attitude that you are always learning), a little courage and emotional resilience.
Whether you’re thinking of leading self so that you are more in control of your life; or whether you lead others, developing the skills of Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility will put you in the right place to lead with integrity. When you focus on leading yourself you will be a powerful role model and will inspire others to take control for themselves too. That way we can do better than just surviving these turbulent times, we can grow through them and take advantage of the opportunities they present.
Amanda Bouch is a Leadership and Executive Coach. She helps Leaders to find their ‘voice’ and leadership style, and build their capability to lead and transform the organisation.
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