Leadership challenges of VUCA

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When Unilever Indonesia wanted clean water for their plant on the highly-polluted Brantas River, they turned to community partners. Rather than throwing money at the problem, they provided management expertise, volunteering help and equipment to help the community help themselves.

Key to this was changing the community's mindset from seeing the river as little more than the local toilet to viewing it as a source of pride, food and income. Unilever had showed how to use the complexity and inter-relationships for wider benefit.

IBM's 2010 global study of CEOs, "Capitalizing on Complexity", noted that there is "an unprecedented level of interconnection and interdependency," underpinning "a rapid escalation of complexity". Companies, it argued, are ill-equipped to cope. The old paradigm is breaking down. Rigid notions about how the world works are crumbling as we reinvent the world using a whole new world view.

The new operating conditions for business (and life) dubbed as VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) by the US Army War College - also describes the planet's evolutionary stage as a complex, mature ecosystem.

Each condition applies equally to personal, professional, organizational and planetary life. Volatility instigates agility. Uncertainty demands internally based security and trust. Complexity requires ability to perceive the whole, to navigate using intuition over analysis.

Ambiguity invites growth to the point where you are quite comfortable with not knowing navigating through the multi-dimensional nature of reality. Add it all up, and it requires capacity to perceive the Whole.

As Samuel J. Palmisano, Chairman and CEO of IBM put it: "We occupy a world that is connected on multiple dimensions, and at a deep level a global system of systems. That means, among other things, that it is subject to systems-level failures, which require systems-level thinking about the effectiveness of its physical and digital infrastructure. "

Using these conditions to real advantage requires letting go of past notions about how the world works to be open and receptive to creating a new way of working together. An entire shift in mindset is required and it goes with a new way of operating in the world.

This won't come easily. Small shifts can be made by doing things differently, stretching into new territory without snapping. Quantum shifts come when the rug gets pulled out from current reality tossing everything up for reflection and review. The subtleties of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are preparing us to make a radical shift in consciousness.

What might activate such a shift? Globally, a major disruption to the monetary structure would redefine power from how much money you have to how resilient and creative you can be. Personally, loss of job, financial security could activate restoration of an intrinsic source of security not reliant on material support.

The kind of higher leadership agility truly required to function comfortably in VUCA conditions is not generated from small moves. It comes when an individual or a company has the courage to think deeply about what it stands for. It is about who you are, not what you do that defines you.

Characteristics of a self-actualized leader start with full spectrum consciousness, a term coined by Richard Barrett to refer to the capacity to address issues of survival while engaging in service to humanity and to all Life (planet). The seven levels of consciousness span what concerns us daily while also embracing a planetary ethic. Practically speaking it refers to the ability to remain in integrity while faced with issues of survival.

Achieve this and ethical breaches no longer exist. It also speaks to the ability to access deeply held creative talent and a wider range of collective intelligences not accessible through the cognitive mental process. It refers to engaging intuition, creativity and capacity to work with diversity fluently.

The mark of the kind of leader that can use a disruptive event to advantage, such as global economic collapse, is one who:

  • Is quite comfortable being uncomfortable. Stretching into new territory does not trigger fear or insecurity; there is confidence and trust that innovation will emerge out of a leap of faith.
  • Has replaced the ego's need to be right with an insatiable curiosity about what is possible; has risen above needing social status as the reward for serving others.
  • Knows when to let go and surrender. The desire to control or direct others is replaced by trust and confidence that people know what to do and will do their best. Trust starts within the Self.
  • Is emotionally aware and able to regulate their emotions.
  • Can listen deeply, from the heart, without mental chatter running in the background.

      The mark of the kind of thinker who is well equipped to be comfortable with uncertainty or ambiguity is one who:

      • Can readily separate out a limiting belief about how the world works. Can detach emotionally from being right and calmly explore other perspectives and possibilities.
      • Can shift perspective quite easily without projecting on to others. Can perceive through another's eyes.
      • Can empathize without being absorbed by another's identity or emotional turmoil.
      • Is completely comfortable with accepting themselves, most days, and with accepting the views of others especially when they differ.
      • Can see the value of different intelligences, different world views as being complementary rather than competitive to his/her own.

      Leaders will have integrated these concepts when the lens of reality includes those who have a different form of intelligence, who perceive the world differently, and when compassion prevails over judgment, when cooperation and collaboration are default ways of working together especially when the going gets rough. The relationship between Gen X-Y and Boomers is the perfect place to apply the skills that VUCA conditions inspire.

      VUCA forces serve as evolutionary change agents because they force accelerated mastery of the invisible forces, releasing attachment to all that is 'tried and true', while opening the gate for personal expansion that starts as simply as doing things differently, then expand to release higher knowledge, creative talent held within yourself and your company.

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