August 13th, 2016
It is a valid description of what happens in our business and economic environments. Technology drives volatility and complexity. Economic and political conditions create uncertainty. All of this is wrapped in ambiguity. At times, there seem to be so many trends happening at once that trying to grasp it all while determining a reasonable path forward seems nearly impossible.
But in what seems impossible, what is possible begins to bloom.
Don’t Be a VUCA Leader
One thing that’s absolutely unambiguous about VUCA is that you do not want to be described in this way.
If you are a volatile leader, your changing and erratic behaviour will drive good people away.
If you are an uncertain leader, your changing directions will frustrate people and lead them to question your capabilities.
If you are a complex leader, no one will get to know you or understand your expectations.
If you are an ambiguous leader, your lack of clarity in what is expected will stymie people’s performance and quickly lead to disengagement.
So VUCA is obviously not a desirable leadership trait. Leaders need to be Reliable, Trustworthy, Direct and Understandable. That’s a poor acronym unless we rearrange the letters to DURT – Direct, Understandable, Reliable, Trustworthy.
In VUCA times, leaders need to get their hands dirty. They need to plant seeds for growth. In VUCA times, leaders need to cultivate talent, harvest what is planted and always prepare for a better day ahead. In fact, VUCA and farming have a lot in common. There are many uncontrollable elements in producing a bountiful harvest, yet we control what we can and work through what we cannot.
Be Direct in complex situations: transparency and open communication builds trust.
Be Understandable in ambiguous situations: clarity in purpose, direction and responsibilities empowers others.
Be Reliable in volatile situations: follow-through on what’s been said and agreed accelerates positive momentum.
Be Trustworthy in uncertain situations: invest in people, involve partners, seek to understand and act with respect.
The point in all this is to raise your leadership game in times of VUCA rather than matching VUCA circumstances with VUCA characteristics.
How to Be a DURT Leader in VUCA Times
1. Know your guiding leadership philosophy. In VUCA times, it is vital to have firm foundations. A leadership philosophy will keep you centred as a leader and will also serve as a guiding force. Knowing how you want to lead will keep you leading in the way you intend to when all around you is in chaos.
2. Create effective listening posts. Listening is fundamental to understanding what your next move should be. Listening posts should include various stakeholders: team members, customers, investors, suppliers and other stakeholders. But taking information in is only the first part. Understanding what it means is where the real value lies.
3. Encourage diverse thinking. Just as your listening posts need to be diverse, so do the talents you engage to analyse, solve and act. VUCA calls for diverse thinking. Exploring all the options demands out-of-the-box thinking from out-of-the-ordinary people. A mix of perspectives and experiences will always enhance how to solve a problem and how to craft a new strategy. Don’t seek sameness. Don’t just work with people like you.
4. Envision what the ‘other side’ could look like. VUCA can create a swirl of activity. But this doesn’t always build momentum. To gain momentum, a vision of what the other side of uncertainty looks like will help plan how to reach this new point of inflection. The reasons to not remain where you are may be strong but they also need to be clear. Communicating why we can no longer stay put and do what we always have done is essential – so is communicating what a new future can look like. None of this will happen overnight, so keep communicating throughout the process.
5. Develop an ‘offense’ while maintaining your core. Whatever is core to your business cannot, and should not, be jettisoned in the movement from where you are today to where you need to go in the future. There is a balance point. The ‘old’ business provides the cash flow, customers and brand to build the ‘new’ business. At the same time, the old business cannot be the albatross to prevent the development of the new strategy.
A good offense always engages in a good defence. As a leader, a new offense needs to be communicated with clarity. While the new offense needs time to develop and unfold, maintaining the core business will ensure the new plans have time to take hold and produce success. Achieving the right give-and-take in the planning is the leadership challenge and necessity.
6. Shift your perceptions of success and failure. So-called success may breed complacency and rapid obsolescence. So-called failure could provide necessary learning for future improvements and innovation.
7. Teach everyone coaching skills. With a little guidance, people can get better at listening, asking questions to help generate insights, creating action plans that align personal and business objectives and holding people accountable for actually doing what they need to do.
In uncertain times, everyone – especially leaders – needs to develop the ability to adapt and stay afloat even if the tides are shifting and the rules of the game are changing. A combination of intellect, intuition and experimentation is needed to read the signals and course correct when required. Leaders must also have the courage to admit what they don’t know, and seek out advice, help and alliances. And remember, what worked well yesterday will not necessarily work well today or tomorrow. Stay awake and you can ride the VUCA wave and not just survive, but thrive.
Jon Mertz is a leadership strategist and the founder of Thin Difference, an online forum dedicated to empowering Millennials to be better leaders, build stronger teams and create richer lives. He is a former Vice President of Marketing at Corepoint Health and has also worked for Deloitte, IBM, and BMC Software.
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