I recently came across a discussion about leading in a “VUCA World”. It was an unfamiliar expression, so I did the sensible thing, and “Googled” it.
The acronym “VUCA” stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and it is used to describe general conditions. I believe that it is an old army term from the 1990’s that was originally developed to describe the world state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in recent years, it has been used more often to describe the business operating environment .
We live in a rapidly changing world (think just of how much technology is changing every minute) that is complex and highly unpredictable, and therefore uncertain and subject to misjudgement. The South African environment is made more precarious and unpredictable by factors such as policy uncertainty, unacceptably high crime levels, the recent power supply challenges and the volatility in the labour environment etc.
Since the primary function of any leader is to point the ship in the right direction and to steer it through whatever waters it faces, it is not good enough for leaders in this VUCA world just to manage, they need to be able anticipate the things that shape conditions, understand the consequences of issues and actions and appreciate the interdependence of numerous variables. They need to prepare for a range of realities and challenges and then respond quickly. They need to be able to recognise opportunities and to act on them.
It’s a tall order for even a seasoned captain, and the more VUCA the environment, the more difficult it becomes for leaders to see around corners and if one can’t predict with some degree of certainty, paralysis can set in.
Retired US Army General, George W CaseyJr. believes that effective action in a VUCA world can be determined by answering what he calls “the number 1 question”, which is: “what are we really trying to accomplish?” Casey believes that it is critical to answer this question whether you are at war or in business. It allows clarity and with clarity comes effective communication, clear focus and common purpose, which results in effective execution. According to Casey, you also have to have an offensive mindset, to work aggressively and opportunistically to gain advantage. You have to show confidence and courage to lead, so that others follow confidently.
Two things stand out for me from the above. Firstly, we need to make our VUCA environment more predictable. We need to mitigate some of the uncertainty if we want to encourage investment and growth. And secondly, we need to teach young people leadership thinking and not just give them management tools. We need to actively grow brave strategic leaders for our future.