Leadership For The New Era

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07-04-2014

10 min read

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THE NOT SO GOOD NEWS

New era. That’s a very scary term if you think about it. It indicates the ending of something and the beginning of something, yet at the same time, we have no clue what’s in store.

But leadership, I think, is all about accepting the “unknown” and then going two steps ahead and figuring out how to deal with come what may.

The pop-term today that’s become the mantra of the corporate world to describe the realities of leadership and business environment is “VUCA”. No, that’s not another code for the mission to assassinate The Great Leader or Castro or Putin.

It’s an acronym for four words to describe the reason why many in leadership positions have chosen to take a great leap backwards in the new era. A great leap back to the days of command and control simply because leadership has become that much harder today.

The parlance is drawn from military leadership that underscores the importance of strategic decision-making, readiness planning, risk management, and situational problem-solving.

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity make up the unholy quartet that has become the bane of leadership in the new era. Even with its military origins, these four words seem pretty apt for describing the business landscape seeing how the world has now become much more borderless, not just in the physical land sense but also the lack of floodgates when it comes to information flow and ideas.

We shall leave illicit money flow for another day. That seems to be lesson number one in the Dummies Guide to Evil Leadership isn’t it? Ukraine is certainly in a state of “VUCA” and so are many Middle Eastern countries due to despots.

At this point in time, those areas are the basin of fossil energy for the world so you can imagine the sort of chaos that’s being caused with the world economy. Any which way, VUCA is here to stay so let’s get acquainted.

Volatility – Unexpected and unstable, very much like your mood when the cable television channel goes off in the middle of the EPL match when the rain starts pouring.

Or a more business-leadership example would be the current price of oil and gold. Whichever business you are in, there is bound to be some sort of impact when the oil prices go up and down, and who knows whether it’s going up or down with all that’s happening in the very volatile regions of the world that just so happen to also be oil producers?

So as a leader, here’s a question – How do you prepare for the unexpected? Tough question? It just gets worse.

Uncertainty– Many of us build our businesses on forecasting. You forecast everything that you can possibly think of relative to the financial impact to your business.

But in the new era, leaders are realising more and more that past issues and events are not so good predictors of future outcomes.

What usually happens is that the event or issue’s cause and effect are known and you expect changes but you have no idea how much and when the change will take place. A popular term is disruptive technology.

Take for example your smartphone. When it first hit the market, it was a superior product with very clear differentiation of capabilities.

Today, is there any one who is going to dare to predict what technologists are going to be able to make the smartphone do?

We have gone from simply being able to surf the net on the smartphone to having our home CCTV streamed in to using the smartphone to paying for purchases at the supermarket. Next it’s going to tell you, based on predictive analytics, what you should be having for dinner!

So leaders, collect and interpret data, but don’t feel too disheartened if you are still as muddled as before as leadership in the new era is uncertain.

Complexity – An Australian gold mining company tapped into a worldwide audience to become its workforce to find the next gold mine at a fraction of the cost. IBM is transforming the Maltese utility management system into a “Smart Grid” that will enable a better managed system to ensure sustainability.

Imagine the magnitude of factors that have to be juggled to make those things work. You can’t? Neither can I. And neither can most people.

Companies have operations in all the continents in the world thereby making the decision-making process that much more complex due to the multitudes of factors that can be impacted by one single wrong calculated move.

From a world that once recognised earth as the centre of the universe to suddenly realising we don’t actually have a clue just how big the universe really is, we have definitely come a long way, and the adjunct of that is the increased complexity of the leadership terrain.

How are you making leadership decisions in the new era? Are you equipped to at least consider some of the complexities of the leadership puzzle?

And finally the word ambiguity.

The author Roopleen once said “running through the maze of life, you come across profound ambiguities and complexities. Yet the essence of living a meaningful life remains simple- following your heart and pursuing your life purpose.”

If you are a leader of an organisation and your shareholders share this wonderful viewpoint, then make sure you try your very best not to wake up…riiiiing… Ok now that you have woken up from that beautiful dream, let’s look at reality.

Your shareholders aren’t too interested in listening to the definition of the word ambiguity and what that lack of clarity means for making tough decisions.

Take a simple analysis of four Ws and one H. That’s Who What When Why and How for the uninitiated.

In this new era, that analysis which has long been used to understand situations simply isn’t enough to conceptualise threats and opportunities before they become lethal.

Colonel Kail of the US army, a decorated veteran and leadership lecturer says leaders must provide clarity so that work assignments and goals are not as ambiguous as the environment. Ambiguity doesn’t paralyse workers; it makes them insecure and stirs them up.

Competent employees, when faced with ambiguity, will do what they are most comfortable doing in order to feel as if they are contributing something appropriate. Doing something, whether it’s helpful or not, makes us feel good. A leader must provide clear direction and synchronise the efforts of others while continually communicating any adjustments.

Now take a deep breath. If the descriptions above read like a B-grade Hollywood movie script and has ruined your weekend, fret not. Go get that second cup of coffee and read on to find the proverbial silver lining.

And now for some good news

It’s always darkest before the first light isn’t it? Noam Chomsky once quoted – ‘“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

For all of the VUCA model’s doom and gloom, there now exists a more positive acronym using the same VUCA called VUCA Prime.

The VUCA Prime was developed by Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future and the author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World.

Johansen proposes that the best VUCA leaders are characterised by vision, understanding, clarity, and agility— the “flips” to the VUCA model.

Vision – Economic uncertainty and its resultant cyclical nature, a new competitor emerging practically every minute, resources becoming ever more scarce by the day – volatility at its worse.

But history has shown us that one thing great leaders give real thought to are the values, ideas and activities they’re most passionate about — and those are the things they pursue, rather than money or prestige or options forced on them by someone else.

They do not seek refuge by retreating in the face of challenges of a volatile environment but rather, hold steadfast to a vision. Leadership is about seeing possibilities and working hard at it. Michelangelo once described his vision of an artwork – “‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

Think about organisational leadership as birds perched on a tree. The leader is the one sitting on the highest branch thus everyone else looks to him or her to answer the questions of “What’s new? What’s next? What’s better?”

That’s justified even if it comes with the expectant pressures. You are after all sitting at the highest point thus you have or are expected to have the clearest view of the landscape.

But here is the catch. Your team doesn’t only want to hear your vision as the answer. The desired option is creating a shared vision!

Milan Kundera, famous Czech author writes – “We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.”

That captures the unfortunate reality for humans to only fully understand situations and issues based on hindsight. But in the new era, leaders simply do not have that luxury. There is an urgent and important need for understanding.

Understanding is the polar opposite of uncertainty within the context of the VUCA scenario. This calls for leaders to stop, look, listen, take stock, consider options and then respond to the arising situations. Going further and trying to make plans for expected situations already stands you in a much better stead than most other people who will usually be paralysed with uncertainty.

Leading an organisation is a balancing act between pursuing the intentions and organisational goals and caring for the best interest of the personnel.

Not rarely, the organisational goals include a change in the way things are performed in a company, which in turn affect the personnel who has to make a change in habits.

So understanding would mean a consideration of both the business needs and perspectives as well as the human aspects.

Making the effort to understand will in turn provide leaders with the clarity to lead. Which in turn brings us to the flip of complexity in the VUCA model.

Clarity. There needs to be deliberate action steps to figure out how to flip the issue of complexity in order to gain clarity. A leader with clarity of vision, thought and action will be much better prepared for the business of the new era.

Every leader quickly learns that most people have some basic fear when confronted with uncertainty—and the future is always uncertain. There’s a lot to be said for clarity and simplicity.

When top executives make short, clear statements about their defined customers, core strengths, desired future, and action plans, they prevent employee confusion and anxiety. They generate confidence throughout all levels of the organisation.

In fact, the quality of clarity may be the most essential element for leading large groups of diverse employees toward an optimum future.

“Effective leaders don’t have to be passionate. They don’t have to be charming. They don’t have to be brilliant…They don’t have to be great speakers. What they must be is clear.

“Above all else, they must never forget the truth that of all the human universals – our need for security, for community, for clarity, for authority, and for respect— our need for clarity… is the most likely to engender in us confidence, persistence, resilience, and creativity.” – Marcus Buckingham in The One Thing You Need to Know About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success.

All things considered, the most powerful tool available to leaders to achieve clarity would probably be reflection.

Reflection is something that needs to be deliberately practised and not something that should be done in the heat of the moment or only when times are bad.

Reflection continuously allows leaders to sort out of the clutter, redefine what is important and allow for a renewed focus on what the most important things are. This in turn will lead to clarity of word and deed.

And last but not least, the flip of the last letter of VUCA, agility.

How agile are you as a leader in communicating across the organisation? How agile are you as a leader to lead using varying methods in different situations?

Learning agile people “excel at absorbing information from their experience and then extrapolating from those to navigate unfamiliar situations.” That is the definition described by Korn Ferry, a consulting firm.

Learning agility is a complex set of skills that allows us to learn something in one situation and apply it in a completely different situation. It is about gathering patterns from one context and then using those patterns in a completely new context.

In short, learning agility is the ability to learn, adapt, and apply ourselves in constantly morphing conditions.

In summary, agility of the leader determines the amount of ambiguity that can be cleared off from any given situation and that will go a long way in navigating the terrain.

The Dalai Lama once said: “Happiness is not something readymade. It comes from your own actions.” That principle holds true for the future that a leader would like to live in. So go ahead and grab VUCA by the horns. Embrace the new era, for it is yours to define and build!

Vinesh Naidu is head of the talent acceleration programme offered by Leaderonomics. To engage with him email him at vinesh.naidu@leaderonomics.com. Click here for more articles like this! 
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