Develop Exemplary Leadership Practices in a Challenging World
Recently, we had the privilege of conducting an enrichment day at one of our client organizations. Members of HR, talent management, and learning and development came together to talk about how to more deeply integrate The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, from The Leadership Challenge®, into their organization.
Specifically, they were grappling with the context in which today’s leaders are leading—in the new reality of an increasingly complex world. The challenge our client kept returning to was preparing leaders for the future in a “VUCA,” or challenging, world and leadership as an antidote to these challenging times.
VUCA—an acronym that standards for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—is a concept borrowed from the U.S. Military War College, and has been circulating as a trend in HR and OD circles for some time. Here is a definition of each:
- Volatility refers to the nature and dynamics of change itself and the nature and speed of change forces and catalysts
- Uncertainty refers to the lack of predictability, potential for surprise, and sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events
- Complexity refers to the multiplex of forces, confounding of issues, and the chaos and confusion that surround an organization
- Ambiguity refers to the haziness of reality, potential for misreads, and mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion
During our enrichment day discussion, we analyzed the degree to which The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® encompassed these concepts or whether they were separate or distinct capabilities (read more on this topic from Harvard Business Review here).
In preparation for this discussion, our research led us to two relevant sources:
First is the work of Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future and author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. Johansen proposes that the best VUCA leaders are characterized by vision, understanding, clarity, and agility—the opposite of the VUCA model. These four skills and abilities can be viewed as a leader’s antidote to a VUCA environment. Here are the definitions of each:
Vision- Volatility can be countered with vision because vision is even more vital in turbulent times. Leaders with a clear vision of where they want their organizations to be in three to five years can better weather volatile environmental changes such as economic downturns or new competition in their markets, for example, by making business decisions to counter the turbulence while keeping the organization’s vision in mind.
Understanding- Uncertainty can be countered with understanding, the ability of a leader to stop, look, and listen. To be effective in a VUCA environment, leaders must learn to look and listen beyond their functional areas of expertise to make sense of the volatility and to lead with vision. This requires leaders to communicate with all levels of employees in their organization and to develop and demonstrate teamwork and collaboration skills.
Clarity- Complexity can be countered with clarity, the deliberative process to make sense of the chaos. In a VUCA world, chaos comes swift and hard. Leaders who can quickly and clearly tune into all the minutiae associated with the chaos can make better, more informed business decisions.
Agility- Ambiguity can be countered with agility, the ability to communicate across the organization and to move quickly to apply solutions.
The second source is Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s short book, Turning Adversity into Opportunity. This work directly addresses the connection between a VUCA environment and The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. In preparation for our enrichment day, our client ordered this book for all top-level leaders, and they studied six strategies leaders should incorporate into their leadership practices to turn adversity into opportunity.
So why is practicing leadership an antidote to challenging times? The authors, Jim Kouzes and Barry Poser, found that “challenge is the defining context for leadership. That’s the consistent pattern we’ve discovered from our research over the past three decades, asking thousands of people to tell us what they are doing when performing at their personal best as leaders. They told us about dealing with challenge, with adversity, with turbulence, and with unexpected difficulties and hardships… We learned very early on that no one ever got anything extraordinary done without initiating or accepting a challenge. Challenge, it turns out, is the crucible for greatness.”
These two sources, along with the discussion at enrichment day, have reinforced how relevant and evergreen The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, and by virtue The Leadership Challenge, really are. As leadership development practitioners, I know you understand firsthand the challenging context that leaders find themselves in. Perhaps in your own organization you’ll be able to help the leaders you work with shift their mindset from volatility to vision, from uncertainty to understanding, from complexity to clarity, and from ambiguity to agility.
By shifting their thinking, we can help leaders avoid wallowing in VUCA and influence them to pursue actions that move them to the opportunity in their own adversity. That’s after all, what great leaders do—they can flip the script!