Leading Through the VUCA
This week’s book, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders by Berger and Johnston, tells us that we are living in times of “VUCA”, meaning “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.” I got a kick out of the authors making an acronym out of this and organizing the book around how to actually deal with VUCA in an effective way. I also think it was kind of fun to say…VUCA…VUCA…VUCA…VUCA (also sounding similar to another four-letter word some people like to use J), which I’m guessing some people might want to use when dealing with VUCA. I have to agree with the authors in that we are definitely living in times of VUCA, and it seems to only be getting worse. Technology changing at astonishing rates is making life more and more complex; politics and our country’s relationship with the world is alarmingly volatile; which is guaranteed to make the future uncertain and ambiguous for all of us. I also agree that most people experience some part of VUCA in their everyday lives just because we are walking around this planet. On some level, VUCA (ok, last time I will use the fun acronym) is experienced by every person on the planet at some time in their life.
So how does this book deal with VUCA? (oops sorry) It teaches us that the solution is to develop three simple habits of mind. The authors summarize this by saying: “Throughout this book, we’ve explored the new ways leaders need to act, think, and be during times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We’ve pointed to a whole different set of ways leaders need to strategize, give and receive feedback, and communicate about a new way of acting into the future. Each of these ideas or ways of thinking or acting is enhanced and developed by the habits of mind: asking different questions, taking multiple perspectives, and seeing systems, which also support us in our helpfully irrational and ever-growing humanity.” I think these are shockingly simple habits that make sense when it comes to changing our mindset as leaders. These also fall in line with the author’s definition of leadership being “about gathering people together—even people with quite different goals and understandings—and helping them build bridges that take everyone to a new place.” If we are going to gather people together in order to lead them to a new place, we will need to start with having the humility to ask questions and not pretend to have all the answers. We also need to be willing to see the world from many other’s perspectives. The authors refer to this habit of taking multiple perspectives by saying, “One way we can make sense of this is to remember that in real life, each person is the hero of her own story, and those who would try to thwart her look like the villains to her.” It was inspiring to have the story of the social workers dealing with agency leadership issues threaded throughout the book, which is how they used this quote to explain why Yolanda was so angry at Reverend Welcher. When she didn’t consider the other perspectives involved, she assumed the Reverend was out to thwart her heroic acts for the agency and the children when, in fact, he was also advocating for the children as well. Sounds a lot like another principle I was taught as a youngster: “Don’t just assume, because if you spell out the word it will remind you of what happens when you assume…ass-u-me.” By not considering the different perspectives of all the players involved I have made myself look like a “donkey” indeed.
The authors have a good tip to prevent this: “As you look down your own lists of players, your first task is to find the one who has always seemed either confusing or bad in some way, someone whose motivations you question (because he seems out only for himself or because he sees things in ways that are “too” something—too logical, too emotional, too financial). Try to see what story you can construct from that other person’s perspective so that his arguments and obstacles make perfect sense.” What a great way to lead without assuming the worst of others and without creating an entire narrative that is most likely not even accurate. Also, why create enemies when we may have the opportunity to create allies or partners. I also appreciated the practical suggestions for the “leader wanting to create change or the leader who is having change created all around you:
- Determine what’s predictable and what’s not, and lean in to leading in unpredictable settings.
- Create a feedback-rich organization in which you and others can constantly learn about what needs to change.
- Choose a direction and build guardrails.
- Examine the present, and look for attractors.
- Experiment and learn.
- Communicate clearly in uncertain times.
- All the while, develop a growth mindset in yourself and others.”
The one that stands out to me the most is creating feedback-rich organizations. This seems to keep coming up as a key element in many of the leadership books we’ve been reading. It was also a common theme at the Leadership Symposium I just attended at the US Air Force Academy. More than one speaker highlighted the importance of being approachable as a leader and creating an environment where honest feedback is welcomed and implemented as much as possible. Even the four-star general at the top of the entire Air Force spoke of the importance of being humble and willing to listen to feedback from those he leads. Although this book was not Christian, the following closing statement sure sounds like a mini-sermon: “The tools in this book are not meant to solve those fundamental needs for order and clarity. Instead, they are intended to offer us new ways to live with joy in a world that often can’t supply what we most wish. Perhaps, though, they will also help us wish for new things, for the startling beauty of a new perspective, for the sense of power when we see some piece of the system that was hidden to us before, and for the key of a different question that unlocks a door we didn’t know existed before.” I am definitely in favor of living with joy and I know the world can’t supply what we really need. I also believe God can reveal to us His hidden beauties found in those He has placed around us and in His amazing creation, especially since He is the ultimate power source.
 Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, Stanford University Press, Kindle Edition, 8.
27 responses to “Leading Through the VUCA”
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VUCA, VUCA, VUCA….. When we get together again in London we should make this our cohort’s chant after each Pecha Kucha presentation! What do you think?
OK, enough frivolity. Thanks for you post. I wonder if and how you see this text being applied to your practice. I also am curious whether or not you see it as useful for church leadership and how senior pastors now are often seen in a traditional CEO role but this text calls for a new way of thinking. How do you think your average church member would respond to this type of leadership?
Thanks Dan, I love the VUCA chant idea 🙂 and thanks for putting up with my ridiculous frivolity. I would say I use some of these principles in my practice quite a bit. In fact encouraging clients to look at other perspectives is key to helping them get out of their stuck, egocentric mindset. I think pastors could definitely benefit from taking in feedback, be willing to ask questions and not have all the answers, and I think church members would like this as well.
No VUCA chanting. PLEASE no VUCA chanting. We’ll be in London and Oxford, places of deep history, learning, diversity and beauty. There will be sensitive Kiwis everywhere, all soaking up the glories of their ancestral birth places. The last thing we (I mean they) need is Yanks telling VUCA VUCA VUCA and messing with the Feng Shui! Btw, what is VUCA?
Oh Digby I love that you just blog-bombed our group. Welcome to our VUCA world…
More to come I’m afraid. It’s rather fascinating reading other cohort posts. What a mixed bunch of people. VUCA simplified: first, face up to your own defensive walls; there’s a bigger world out there. Second, learn to ride dragons, not slay them. There’s a wealth of learning in the unfamiliar – and a dragon comes in handy from time to time. Still, no chanting!
And anyhow, Jake deserves me ?
Welcome Digby to the awesome blog posts of the Elite LGP8, and yes I feel like I do deserve you and welcome your fun responses anytime. Also thanks for reminding us of the staunch UK environment and keeping us hooligans in check. Maybe I could borrow your stately ecclesial robes so I will be taken more serious 🙂
You’re on. I’ll bring the ecclesiatical lingerie and we can do a photo shoot. It’ll be special. What’s with the ‘elite’ title. I’ve read the ‘8’ posts, and ‘elite’ is a bit of an overstretch – me thinks.
Thanks Digby, I can’t wait for the photo shoot…especial when you call it lingerie 🙂 Regarding the “elite” designation for our group, I believe it came from Loren or Cliff, and yes I’m sorry that my group’s posts don’t always reflect the high standard that mine do…I am doing my best to uphold our Elite 8 designation. 🙂
This made my Monday morning! haha
Seems that you and Trish are on the same wavelength with the “Feedback Rich Organization”.
You made me think about the best boss’s I had in my career, and you are right, the best one’s gave the most feedback. I didn’t always like their feedback, but when I was open to being teachable, it helped me tremendously.
I want to affirm you and your “live with joy” comment. Thanks for bringing joy to our Elite 8 and for making this fun. I appreciate you!
Thanks Jay, you are so very kind and encouraging and I appreciate you as well. I definitely enjoy bringing joy and fun into my experiences and I hope I don’t annoy people too much 🙂 . So glad to hear you have had some good bosses who gave you good feedback, I also hope those bosses were just as willing to receive honest feedback as well, because I’m sure you would have had plenty of excellent gems to sharpen them with. Glad to hear Trisha was mind melding with me, I will have to check out her blog as well. Blessings friend!
Hey Jake, I, too, am growing ever more convinced of the need for and value of feedback. This idea is becoming central to my dissertation, that missionaries and mission agencies need to grow in their willingness to give and receive feedback, especially feedback from national partners.
How do you see feedback fittinng into your research area? Where could feedback make an impact in egalitarian organizations,
Thanks Jenn, so glad you are advocating for more honest feedback and hopefully teaching people how to take feedback well (there was an entire workshop just on the topic of receiving feedback well at the Air Force Academy conference we just attended). We become better leaders by listening to how we are impacting our followers. I should have taken advantage of the opportunity to highlight how valuable feedback is in organizations that want to increase their gender balance. Men listening to women share their experiences of patriarchal leadership can be valuable.
Great post, Jake!
You’re a riot! Lol I’m replying to your post in Starbucks and people are now staring at me because I’ve started mouthing VUCA, VUCA, VUCA in the midst of a very crowded coffee shop.
Berger and Johnston challenge us to form new habits, build new mindsets and create new leadership structures in order to form a response to today’s changing landscape. Zig Ziglar said it best, “Motivation gets you going and habit gets you there” (https://bit.ly/2tOCZFH) You mention, “If we are going to gather people together in order to lead them to a new place, we will need to start with having the humility to ask questions and not pretend to have all the answers.” I completely agree! This is a new concept for many who cling onto the idea of transformational leadership. How do we implement this into systems and organizations that strive towards the old guard of leadership? How do we set the standard for transparency and humility?
Thanks Colleen, glad you enjoyed the VUCA craziness and I’m sure everyone at Starbucks thought you were pissed off or something. 🙂 Thanks for the Zig Zigler video, great stuff. I feel like humility is a hard concept to teach but I actually think it starts with healthy habits of gratitude and appreciation of others and practicing asking questions we don’t know the answers to. We definitely need new leadership structures, preferably gender-balanced ones 🙂
Jake, what specific ways did they encourage feedback at the gathering? I would love to hear examples and ways you see it being able to be applied to your work!
Also, hilarious that Digby commented on your and Dan’s rediculous idea! Ha! 🙂
Thanks Trisha, yes I thought it was hilarious that Digby blog-bombed our cohort and got a kick out of our VUCA madness 🙂 It was interesting how much they referred to the need to receive honest feedback from those we lead, especially impacting from 4-star generals being deliberate about implementing feedback from peons ranked far below them. They just mentioned how important it was to create a safe environment for people to give honest feedback and to show value to it even if it creates no real change. Also, I should have taken advantage of the opportunity to highlight how valuable feedback is in organizations that want to increase their gender balance. Men listening to women share their experiences of patriarchal leadership can be valuable.
Also would love to hear sometime how things are going with the grant for pastoral health and growth that you are managing. Such important work! Blessings friend!
You crack me up. 🙂
I like the emphasis you place on feedback also. Is it my imagination, or did you mention a long time ago that you see your work of counselling as being a feedback loop for people needing fresh eyes on their problems? In your work, you basically help people navigate their VUCA worlds through offering insights and direction in turbulent times.
Thanks Mark, glad you enjoyed the VUCA madness, and it was pretty funny that Digby chimed in as well 🙂 Yes I think I have mentioned before that counseling is basically honest feedback and holding up a mirror to help clients understand themselves and figure out how to navigate the VUCA in their daily lives. Like leaders, everyone receives and implements feedback differently. Blessings friend!
Counselling is, “just honest feedback” and “holding up a mirror”. And you get paid for that? I’m coming to Merica! In New Zealand we actually have to work for a living – blow that.
Yep I guess life is easier here in Merica. 🙂 I’m thinking you should move to the beautiful Pacific Northwest so you don’t have to work so hard…and we won’t make you wear lingerie. 🙂
They won’t let me in.
🙁 I guess I didn’t realize how dangerous you were..haha
Thanks for your reflections on the book, Jake. And the main points were helpful. Given your experience in leadership, what practices would you recommend that the author did not include?
Thanks Chris for your comments. What comes to mind that I don’t think the authors touched on is the incredible importance of affirmation and encouragement. Positive psychology has been researching this for years and has proven what a significant impact positive feedback has on people, their attitudes and performance. So…to combat the VUCA I would say PRAISE, PRAISE, PRAISE!!! Blessings to you sir!
“Why create enemies when we may have the opportunity to create allies or partners.” Great advice for ministers Jake! I believe we live in a hostile environment within the church; in fact, one of my favorite “sad but true” statements is to say, “The hardest thing about being a preacher is dealing with all of those Christians.” It seems no matter how hard one tries, there is always a criticism coming; this reality creates this defensive response of assumption. We sometimes tend to expect the comment to be aggressive or abrasive; though it may just be inquisitive or responsive. We need to train ourselves to truly listen rather than just hear.