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.