Leading in a VUCA world
Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnson have written a book for the “VUCA” world we live in. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are key traits that define these times. We are learning to lead within a high-stress, constantly-changing environment, as we are pulled in many divergent directions. Multiple options and polarizing stakeholders often paralyze leaders who must select a pathway towards growth and change yet are constrained by fear and uncertainty.
The authors’ book offers pointers not towards solutions to these problems, but on a different way of thinking that can reorient us to fruitful and healthy organizational life. Cultivating three habits provide a clarifying way forward. These are:
- Asking different questions,
- Taking multiple perspectives, and
- Seeing systems
I was ironically smiling as I read this book because I feel my situation could have been written into this book to replace the story of Yolanda, Doug, and Jarred. Over the past seven weeks I’ve been immersed in a situation (that I’m not publicly naming here) that has called for immediate action and strong leadership to navigate a university’s complex environment. Student enrollment is at historic lows, the key leadership position has been vacated, and financial indicators are troubling. Unless quick action, combined with a respectful consultative process occurred, forty-four years of history and engagement were at risk.
Fortunately, the smallness of the institution and its own marginalized place in Canada has also strangely become a benefit, allowing nimble, quick actions while also respecting all stakeholder groups through consultation and immediate communication. The other exceptional benefit was that the board has been completely renewed and the new replacements are eager to advance.
Once empowered, our strategic action group moved quickly. While we hadn’t read Berger and Johnson yet, we did a complete review by asking different questions, taking multiple perspectives, and seeing systems. We asked new questions and defined a new strategic direction, one that respects the past with its core curriculum focused on liberal arts education yet repositions it for Generation Z’s needs for applied learning to make education relevant. All stakeholder groups – staff and faculty, board, students, alumni, donors, the town, and our Member of Parliament – were invited to contribute to the discussion as we took multiple perspectives into consideration. The various systems at play in student education, recruitment, government, and society also provided frameworks for facilitating change.
In response, we are rewriting curricula to adapt to the changing context of an applied learning environment. We selected new pathways for recruitment of students who we knew were out there but finding them was a challenge. We identified the specific financial need and began reaching out to a new cohort of donor partners, using a different approach than had been utilized in the past. The new model we crafted anticipates operational sustainability by year three, so the fundraising challenge would bridge the gap. We’ve been astonished by the opening doors to viability for the institution as we take a stand for the new reality.
One of the surprises involved applying the three habits to revision the problem of low student enrollment. Two years ago, our provincial government began offering free education for local students in public universities – private institutions like ours were excluded. How could a little private school compete with the financial disparity? We figured out a model that might work, and when announced to the media (“debt-free tuition”) it went viral with over 100,000 views of the video. In response, new student applications began arriving and we are nearing our targets now.
One unexpected challenge came with the viral media hit. The reporter, schooled in binary thinking, couldn’t quite grasp the nature of our new positioning on faith and reported that we were no longer a religious institution. What we are attempting is to create a place where the fulsome exploration of faith is encouraged, but without dictating how that might look for those who attend. Students of all faiths or none are welcome and will find support as they seek to authentically and honestly construct their worldviews. It is a third way between secularized public education where spiritualities are absent, and the traditional Christian university where only one way is nurtured. We believe that it is the duty of churches to nurture faith in Christ, but universities should become places of open dialogue and exploration of all options, even and especially spiritual ones.
This new positioning might seem like an abandonment of faith to traditional evangelicals. Indeed, one national leader wrote me to state that she was sad we were “becoming secular”. However, in her observations it was she who was infected with the virus of secularity. Jamie Smith, in reviewing Charles Taylor, states: “Secularization theorists … are barking up the wrong tree precisely because they fixate on expressions of belief rather than conditions of belief.” The university is creating a place where belief can be nurtured but does not require it. She was more concerned with the expression alone.
So, pray for us, please, as we advance. The next months are critical and you will all have a front row seat.
 Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 8.
 Ibid., 13.
 I will link to this in our facebook group.
 James K.A. Smith, How (not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 20.
9 responses to “Leading in a VUCA world”
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Great personal example and involvement with the Questions, Perspectives, and Systems on the university strategic plan. I’m glad you had a motivated group of stakeholders whose desire was to see a solution that could continue the legacy of the Christian University. It is a slippery slope when any Christian organization waters down their founding principles. Remember the slow influence and effects to the Baptist University in Hong Kong? Change = change. In God’s economy, He is not concerned. It is about life on life discipleship most of the time anyway. Great post!
Yes, thanks for reminding us of the HK Baptist University.
It takes great wisdom to know how to relate to each generation and new culture in their own way. I pray we are discovering our way which removes the label but retains the core values. It’s risky. But to be honest, we had nothing to lose in making the choice. Sometimes I think when you face your own demise, you end up making some powerful decisions.
Can you please come and guide my university in the same way? It seems we are stuck in old thinking and continue to decline. Your understanding that Gen Z students are looking for a different type of program other than traditional ‘liberal’ learning, is insightful.
We also are competing with ‘free’ education and yet are not brave enough to ask different questions to complete. The nimbleness you discuss is powerful. I look forward to hearing about future results in terms of both enrollment and then outcomes for students as they commence their studies.
It might be time for you to write another book for higher ed institutions like yours and mine (and 1000 others struggling in the US) applying the text from this week and your own experiences mentioned in this blog.
Thanks mate. I think we will need a few years past survival mode before we write any books!! But I have to admit, once we made these strategic decisions and launched out, there has been immense energy and enthusiasm. We are all blown away.
We met with our MP and she encouraged us to find students internationally and she would pave the way for their visas. So I’m going to Colombia in 3 weeks to recruit some students from there. We hired a friend of mine who lives there to gather students.
Would love to chat more in person or on zoom if you want to know more for Kings.
I felt so badly for you…”The reporter, schooled in binary thinking, couldn’t quite grasp the nature of our new positioning on faith and reported that we were no longer a religious institution.” Sorry about the nasty letter, too.
With you, I was challenged by the VUCA. Your picture illustrates it perfectly! Way to go. Visual ethnography at it’s best…
Keep shining Mark. You are a blessing to us and your University!
We have been learning the common saying, “There’s no such things as bad press!” So even a news article that had some errors but attracted attention has turned out to be a blessing. Thank God!
Great post Mark, I had to comment on your post since you and I both focused on the VUCA for our title and because there was such funny banter on my blog comments about it 🙂 Great minds think alike! Also your real-life experience of navigating the VUCA that this university is going through was fascinating and I’m so glad they had you to help navigate things. You and the Univ. will be in our prayers.
Mark. How exciting and frightening at the same time. I would love to see this one day. The challenge of a faith journey without a plan is scary to folks….maybe even me:-) . I am curious how free education doesn’t fall into the trap of worthless. I have been thinking about this as I read about other institutions also moving this direction.
Mark, sounds like an incredibly tense situation. Its cool to see your leadership being stretched and some of the ideas working into your work already. Looking forward to hearing more in the months to come.