Resilient Leaders in a VUCA World –

Discipline #4 – Showing your Authenticity

Sourced from Google

Several years ago I was in Singapore on business. As with many cities there was an evening market where I was offered a Rolex watch for about $10. With a cynical smile I asked if the watch was “genuine.” The response with a huge smile and a vigorous shake of the head was “genuine copy.”

Leaders in disruptive times are clearly under continual pressure, or at least expected from their stakeholders to be optimistic, show hope, have clear vision, and to lead with assured commitment and confidence. As leaders we know that it is extremely difficult to model this expected behavior for long periods of time and fake it. Leaders in disruptive times can only meet the new daily and unexpected challenges of leadership if they are genuine in who they really are, that is they are genuine or authentic leaders.

The idea of authentic leadership (AL) has developed over the last several years, using different names until Bill George’s book Authentic Leadership popularized the term in 2003. So what is really different for leaders in VUCA times now almost 20 years later? The foundational elements of authentic leaders are: Self-awareness, Balanced Processing, Moral and Ethical behavior and Relational Transparency. Pragmatically these may be demonstrated by a leader whose leadership practices encourages the organization to implicitly trust the leader “all the time” as their talk and actions are 100% congruent with who they are in real life or “in their PJ’s”. The Authentic Leader listens, processes fairly with equity, and seldom if ever uses their title to “swing a vote” (balanced processing), They are beyond reproach being ethical, moral, and they say it all without holding back (transparent).

As my father used to say regarding all intangibles including integrity, “you will know it when you see it.” I wish there was a quick checklist, or a character “thermometer” that you could stick under a leader’s tongue to measure their authenticity, but in my experience, it’s a judgment call and it is always made by others (authentic leaders do not self-report on being authentic). Let me share a profile of one colleague (of many wonderful men and women who have influenced my leadership) in my season of serving at a large international ministry. I actually worked twice for this organization, and on returning the second time, this individual was the only leader from the executive suite to “come down” to the bull pen to personally welcome me back and to share how much value he saw in my new role this second time around. He was genuinely interested in who I was and what I was being called to in being part of significant change in the organization. This behavior was proved absolutely consistent with who he was as a person, and what we (the plebs) saw of him as a leader. His default leadership style was intentional process and decisions motivated by his internal compass of genuine and fair principles and values. He knew who he was, both as a person and a leader. More often than not, he was the last one to speak in a meeting, normally to assimilate the conversation, or to ask stretching and open questions initiating further discussion and always a better outcome. A genuine leader who I find myself personally and subconsciously emulating – he “leaked” authenticity. He was an avid learners reminding me that authentic leaders are continuously committed to their own learning in order to understand themselves better as a person and how they and others see the world (sometimes differently). Authentic leaders know themselves well – they are extremely self-aware.

A close “cousin” to self-awareness is moral and ethical values. It is impossible to be an authentic leader and be considered ambiguous in your ethical or moral values. Enron, Wells Fargo, Credit Suisse are familiar names of a far too long list of organizations and leaders who have ignored these essential behaviors and values. The list of individual corporate and Church leaders who have resigned for “moral failures” is now almost too common to make headline news. Leadership in fast-changing times causes leaders opportunities to “cut corners” looking attractive or even essential in the heat and challenges of expedience. Being authentic is knowing that this is unacceptable, not sustainable, and will for any organization be unforgivable.

Authentic leaders demonstrate vulnerability and at the same time fully understand their genuine and influential power with others (Balanced Processing). Being expected to deliver great outcomes over shorter periods of time in a VUCA world, with stakeholders being increasingly impatient for results and demanding immediate outcomes, being authentic as a leader is continuous pressure. The pressures of instant delivery versus longer-term desirable outcomes are a true leadership tension in itself and often lead to autocratic style of leadership. Authentic leaders resist this urge and through a balanced approach encourage input from their teams and the organization, prior to making sustainable and owned decisions leading to outcomes that have significant and positive impact for the internal contributors and the customers. Authentic leaders have a balanced and equitable style and approach to leading and listening.

Peter Northhouse in his book, Leadership: Theory and Practice (2013, p 264) states that authentic leaders show relational transparency when the communicate openly and are “real in their relationships with others.” Barring sharing sensitive information, authentic leaders are open and honest in a genuine way and always choose to share appropriate information openly. However, there is a fine line between being transparent and being inappropriate. Although most genuine leaders are aware (self-aware again) of the sensitivity of information, in changing times where this is a continuous call for confidence, leaders are expected to be more vulnerable and empathize with the difficulties of the times. Careful thought and meticulous preparation are needed in communicating with more levels of detail. Multi-generational workforces, hybrid workforces, and technology is requiring new thinking of how to be transparent and lead. Transparency requires leaders to give the full “100%. Holding back information, other than for legal or policy, is becoming one of the major expectations of leaders when asking employees if their leader is transparent in their communications. Followers are expecting the full story, not the abridged version.

In a VUCA world no one, not even the best and most experienced leaders have all the answers. It is a truism that a leader’s day never ends the way they planned it as change and learning is on a fast-moving continuum. However what does not change is the ability of the leader to live passionately vision and purpose, be aware of who they are, never to compromise their values, to lead and be the team, and to maximize transparency with those who follow them. Being authentic in VUCA times is not only necessary, it is essential.

Resilient Leaders in a VUCA World – Discipline 3: Networking and Collaborating

The most important app that leaders may have on their smartphones today is the contact list (those who have been in leadership a long time may remember , using aRolodex file). Leaders are not superheroes able to lead alone with superpowers, and organizations are not islands regardless of how competitive and strong they believe they are in facing the future. Resilient leaders in a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) world will need to be even more relational, networked, and collaborative to be successful in leading thriving organizations. If we believe that traditional hierarchical organizations are morphing into fluid and agile networks of people working together toward a shared and common purpose, then it follows that it would be prudent for leaders to do the same. To think strategically and adapt with confidence and courage to this uncertain world, leaders will need to intentionally collaborate and network proactively both within and outside of their organization. This collaborative mindset of engaging and cultivating purposeful relationships through personal contact, social media, and professional affiliations will enable leaders to strategize both vertically and horizontally in leading their organizations (see “How Leaders Create and Use Networks” – HBR January 2007 for a more in-depth argument for leaders and networks). The value of being a networked leader is difficult to quantify, but pragmatically there are at least 7 benefits that through experience would prioritize networking for today’s leader.

7 Potential Benefits of Networking for Leaders

Connecting with other leaders nurtures a leader’s  strategic thinking by raising the awareness of current relevant issues, news, trends, best practice, or proactive policies and practices. This enables the leader to analyze the opportunities and threats in the environment in which they lead – whether in the same or a different industry, and whether issue-based or in the local, national, or global arena. An intentional network of both national and international leaders provides new perspectives and thought paradigms that expand ideas beyond the possible “group-think.” With this knowledge, leaders can pivot and adjust strategic direction/priorities inspiring the organization to new business models beyond current best practice.

2. Build networked and diverse stakeholders

Both internal AND external networks are essential for diverse thinking and testing existing assumptions. Connecting with people in the same (or similar, or complementary, or even different) roles, business, or geographical areas often provides cause for changed paradigms. Internally, diverse networking enables leaders to recruit new stakeholders and to line up allies, champions, advocates, referrers, sympathizers, promoters, and partners. Awareness and knowledge of the political landscape, and how to leverage influencers and networks are significant to the leader’s success.

3. Tapping into a diverse pool of talent

Widening your network provides access to a broader range of expertise and diverse skill sets that can influence both your work and your life. Being exposed to different ideas, opinions, and knowledge helps to develop more complete, creative, and unbiased views of issues. In How to Build Your Network, Uzzi and Dunlap state “In a monumental 1998 study of innovations in science, art, and philosophy, sociologist Randall Collins of the University of Pennsylvania showed that breakthroughs from icons such as the Seven Sages of Antiquity, Freud, Picasso, Watson and Crick, and Pythagoras, were the consequence of a particular type of personal network that prompted exceptional individual creativity.”

4. Avoiding ‘groupthink’

Networking also matters for avoiding groupthink. While it is important to have an organization or team in which members have shared values, a common purpose, and agreed practices,individuals – especially in an established group – often tend to conform to common thinking and compromise with the group. By aiming for consensus and agreement, and often fearing conflict, dissent, and challenge, this ‘groupthink’ behavior may result in unhealthy, unreasoned, and mediocre decision-making. To reduce groupthink, express and welcome new ideas and voices, and invite critical challenges and different views. This can be achieved by introducing new members or practices, or by voicing and hearing opinions and ideas from wider networks – specifically from outside the organization.

5. Generates innovation and creativity

Uncertainty requires the cross-fertilization of new ideas, the sharing and generating of new ideas and approaches, and often non-traditional or agile actions. Collaborating with people in different fields or worlds enables leaders the opportunity to access radically different perspectives. Debating issues and approaches, problems and solutions, and sharing best practice and news is both energizing and motivating. It enables leaders to tap into greater creativity developing new ideas and strategies. The future might require this to be through a network of organizations that collaboratively create synergistic solutions taking advantage of specific areas of expertise and experience.

6. Mixing of experience and new thinking

The combining of people new to the field with experienced network members often provides new life to the discussions, problem-solving, group, or organization. If a leader remains surrounded by people who behave and think like them, or only those with whom they are comfortable, the result can be an “echo chamber” in which groupthink and the same behaviors and actions modeled on the past prevail. In the era of agile organizations, scrums, tribes, and other new organizational theory, the mixing of different people with different views to learn from one another and to stimulate new thinking is key to thriving future organizations.

7. Getting things done expediently and efficiently

A leader can only leverage a network if they have one! A leader creates useful contacts and productive relationships to enhance their work, and through the stimulation of discussion explode creativity, motivation, knowledge, and skillset in their organizations to get things done. Rather than wasting valuable time networking, focused and purposeful networking becomes time well spent. In VUCA times, whether you are seeking to lead or you are already leading, networks are becoming increasingly important as a core competency for leaders. 

So, when was the last time you evaluated your networks? What did your analysis show you? Is this the time, especially as we face an uncertain future in this changing world, to put more energy into building and leveraging our networks and/or our networking skills?

Resilient Leaders in a VUCA World – Discipline 2: Imperfect Decision-Making

“On an important decision one rarely has 100% of the information needed for a good decision no matter how much one spends or how long one waits. And, if one waits too long, he has a different problem and has to start all over. This is the terrible dilemma of the hesitant decision maker.” 

― Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader

Most leaders have at some point in their career been challenged with the Pareto principle. SImply stated, the principle suggests that 80% of consequences/impact result from 20% of the effort or the causes. This Pareto principle is foundational in developing the discipline of imperfect decision-making. Waiting patiently for 100% of the expected data to drive a decision will be the proverbial “albatross” around the leader’s neck, especially in a VUCA world often leading to what many leaders are experiencing –  resilience fatigue.

In a previous blog the hierarchy of data, i,e. transitioning data to knowledge was discussed (speed of change) underlying the growing relevance of leaders needing to make decisions with knowledge, or data interpreted in the organization’s context. In VUCA times the luxury of being able to wait for every aspect of information to be available before a decision is made is no longer feasible or practical. Waiting often leads to decision inertia (no decisions ever being made), or in some cases a long drawn out process leading to a  subjective risk/reward scale that might result in a good decision (but the need for the decision has changed). What is absolutely critical for the VUCA leader is that (1) a decision is made, and (2) being cognizant that there is no doubt that a few poor decisions will be made (hopefully not the consequential ones!). Decision-making in leadership has never been 100% perfect, the competency is how quick we are in assessing the potential consequences and working in real-time. Advice I often share with new leaders, who are overwhelmed with more decisions than can often be handled with ease, is that decision-making is analogous to juggling multiple balls in the air. The discerning (read resilient) leader identifies which balls are crystal and those which are rubber. Don’t drop the crystal balls and the rubber ones will bounce back for next time. That choice is still an intentional and calculated decision!

In a recent Forbes article titled, “Is VUCA Really the Enemy of Good Decision Making ? (December 2021, Erik Larson), suggested that agile decision making could be simplified to 6 steps. A little adapted to these are: (1) how to analyze information, (2) simplify quickly, (3) determine and coordinate possible solutions, (4) capture institutional knowledge (my added thought – before it “walks” out the door) for context and learning, (5) track the results/impact of the decision, and (6) maximize the solution to promote organizational knowledge.The first step of analysis is really the driver of the time and effort needed for the decision-making process. “Paralysis by Analysis” is the enemy of the speed of change. Many leaders, especially in a VUCA world, are purposeful in showing confidence and stability to their leadership of the organization, often believing that perfect decision-making is the first step to this superhero role. Good judgment, calculated risk, inclusion of the right stakeholders, and experience will often show that decision-making can be expedited with little additional risk with 70-80% of the information available.

Not being a person to “reinvent” the wheel, but always seeking pragmatic and value-adding tools, I would offer that a model worth reviewing is the Cynefin framework developed by Dave Snowden in 1999, Snowden served in IBM’s Global Services developing this framework of five decision-making contexts or domains (1) Clear, (2) Complicated, (3) Complex and (4) Chaotic. 

Clear (previously called Obvious) is just that. A context which is tightly constrained with little flexibility and most leaders would make the same decision. You know you need to make the decision, you know what the solution is and you respond. These decisions are comparable with “Best practice.“

Complicated is the context where there are governing constraints, interacting knowledge points, and it is not as simple to just execute without more analysis.  A  decision is needed, but not before more analysis is completed. The key principle in this situation is that although there are general best practices, this decision has enough nuance that analysis is still required. The leader’s discipline is not to wait for 100% perfection in the analysis, but make what might be considered an “imperfect” decision, having enough information that is good enough to get the job done. 

Complex is the domain where the influencing parameters (constraints) to a decision are not as obvious. The leader’s question may be something like “what is the root issue we are looking at here to analyze?” The situation has more complex than previous experience. There may even be complex scenarios where the leader is not even sure of what the problem really is to be decided on. The framework suggests that in this context more “probing”is needed before a decision can be made. There are no comparable business models, and in fact this process may actually lead to an emerging or new practice for the future. This is the domain many organizational leaders find themselves in today as the world emerges from the chaotic decision-making of the pandemic years. 

Chaotic  is the world we have been living in for the last two years. Historic context is questionable in value, and there has been little time for analysis or probing. Leaders have had to act, and to act fast. New practices have been developed and in many cases those fast decisions have been so successful that they are today institutionalized (think working from home). Perhaps the learning from these last 22 months is that most of the decisions made without all the information normally available were not so bad after all?

Decision-making for leaders is  transitioning from chaotic/complex to complicated both at a global level, and as leaders strategize for the future. Waiting for all the information/knowledge to emerge will continue to test the discernment of leaders, and the patience of the organization. Waiting for the “new normal” through analysis is an exercise in futility. The question for the VUCA leader will be do you have enough information, even though it is not 100% of what historically expected. Agility and sustainability in the past will require excellence, probably to make the “imperfect decision”, but essentially to make the decision now. In VUCA times this is the new discipline leaders will have to master.

Resilient Leaders in a VUCA World – Discipline 1: Thoughtful Communications

In this thought leader series I am reflecting on the growing importance of VUCA leaders being resilient. VUCA leaders certainly need to be Visionary, Understood, Courageous and Agile, but they must also be intentionally focused on key leadership disciplines that are more nuanced in these disruptive times. There are seven particular disciplines that I believe are key for resilient leaders in successful and thriving organizations today: (1) Thoughtful Communication, (2) Imperfect decision-making, (3) Proactive collaboration, (4) Unquestionable Authenticity, (5) Discernment in fast risk-taking, (6) Enhancing a strategic mindset, and (7) Deeply empathetic.

Communication is the foundation of any leader’s success in informing, influencing, and leading organizations.  Gilbert Ameliorate, CEO of several technology companies including Apple, stated it succinctly by saying, “Developing excellent communication skills is absolutely essential to effective leadership. The leader must be able to share knowledge and ideas to transmit a sense of urgency and enthusiasm to others. If a leader can’t get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t even matter.” What has become evident in fast-changing times is that the preparation of the communication, especially in WFH employee models is more essential than in the past. The luxury of “reading the room” and engaging interactively in a streamed broadcast is no longer easy, and in many cases the leader, especially to a larger audience, where it is being recorded, needs to remember that every word is being critically analyzed. Leaders are now being confronted with further clarification, retractions, apologies, or corrections after almost every message to their dispersed organizations. 

The discipline of communication evolving over the last two years could be evolving to be described as thoughtful communication. As it has become more difficult to be spontaneous, adlib, or extemporize (think of black squares with large names on a ZOOM call), so has the discipline of thoughtfully planning and framing what is to be communicated had to be improved. A simple four principle checklist may be the key to you being a “thoughtful” communicator in VUCA times.

1. Frequency – with the pace of change around us and continued uncertainty, it is a given that more frequent communication is here to stay. The occasional town-hall, company-wide memo, remarks at big occasions is not going to be enough for the organizations you lead. Changing times and workforces will require a more frequent and intentional communication strategy. This for leaders requires more  time and planning. Weekly verbal updates to the entire organization (Monday) in addition to a formal weekly update (Wednesday) is now the norm in the organization I lead. If I “miss” one week, my inbox is flooded!  The size of the organization, your workforce model (remote/hybrid/office), geographic distribution, and stability of the operations will uniquely influence frequency and mode, but a formal plan for frequent communications is no longer an option for today’s leader. Be thoughtful in what is the best frequency and mode for you as a leader in VUCA times.

2. Clarity – The amazing advancement  we have seen in broadcast technology (ZOOM, TEAMS, etc), has raised the potential for more confusion. Research shows that about 2 in 3 adults are visual learners and although these adults see the leader visually, the verbal message is not always clear.  As thoughtful communicators, more leaders are following up their organizational messages with written transcripts, Q/A sessions, and other means to ensure that the message they thought was being communicated is actually the message being heard. A new technique that I now use after almost 40 years in leadership is a teleprompter on my tablet. This forces me to (1) prepare well and scrutinize the message for clarity by preparing a printed text, (2) reduces adlib words and phrases that might cause ambiguity or confusion being added on the fly, and (3) provides an immediate transcript that can be distributed as follow up to the audience immediately after the communication. Regardless of the leader’s process, the enemy of clarity: ambiguity, confusion, vagueness, and obscurity should be eliminated at all times, but with special thoughtfulness in disruptive times.

3. Consistency – Employees are living personal daily lives that are flooded with inconsistency. Inconsistent messages on the economy, pandemic, geopolitics, are being received received in media streams. Confusion on what is fact and what is fiction in information available in an incredibly active social media world is not unusual. However, what cannot be inconsistent and confusing in their professional life are the communications/messages being received from their leaders. This is especially important in remote workforce models where there is little opportunity for office/cubicle/water cooler chatter to collectively process apparent ambiguities or changes in understanding with their peers. There are at least two considerations to be “thought” through by the leader in this regard. The first is how the message is consistently being  “cascaded” through the leadership structure, and secondly ensuring that the message stays consistent and aligned with other communications. With the normalization of recorded ZoomTeam calls, remote employees, and more frequent communication needs, attention to consistency by the leader is imperative.

4. Transparency – It has been said that transparent communication is the intention of both good and bad information being shared upward, downward, and laterally in a manner that unveils the “why” behind the message. For leaders, especially leaders in VUCA times, integrity, honesty, and compassion are non-negotiable –  there must be a culture of transparency. Ultimately as stated in previous blogs this boils down to trust. In order to trust the communication, the communicator must be trusted, and trust is synonymous with transparency. When there is continual change, and the world is so unpredictable, it is becoming more and more difficult to know what the future holds with any measure of confidence.  The only solution to this dilemma is transparency from the leader and trust of the leader by the follower. 

The signature theme of these four reminders: frequency, clarity, consistency, and transparency is diligence and thoughtful planning in communications. Leaders have always communicated but in these VUCA times, additional thought characterizes the resilient and successful leader for the future. The famous orator/communicator Sir Winston Churchill stated is so well:

“If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want time to speak for thirty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want to speak for an hour, I am ready now.”

Resilient Leaders in a VUCA World — Being Agile —

VUCA leaders are Visionary, Understood, Courageous and Agile. This week we reflect on what it means to be an agile leader in a changing world.

Adapt, pivot, flex, adjust, change, are verbs every leader is overly familiar with on a daily basis. In the VUCA  (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world of today, the leadership competency of agility (encompassing most of these terms) is paramount and a vital skill for every organizational leader. Constantly changing environments, fast-moving global shifts, and current business realities (talent, supply chain management) require leaders to constantly reengineer their organizations strategy by reflecting, rethinking, and responding in real-time – being agile is no longer an option for leaders in disruptive times. What then identifies an agile leader, how might we develop our competency in this area?

1. Be a Strategic Thinker

Strategic leaders are able to assimilate external opportunities and threats; apply their professional judgment (experience and intuition); interpret creatively or innovatively the opportunities presented; assess these new opportunities in conjunction with the organization’s current plans and desired future; and then lead and communicate with clarity and evidence new strategies to grow the organization with intention and success. These leaders create a strategic thinking culture where all employees share a common and collective future that is clear and understood, of both why and where the organization is going into the future on a continual basis. 

Thankfully, strategic thinking is generally intuitive to a leader, more so than being a strong analyst. Even though constant analysis of opportunities and trends might provide data informing or suggesting adaptation for future success, it is human intuition which influences that significant decision to pivot the organization’s strategy for the future. The championing role of the agile leader is thus critical, providing the creative space in the constant tyranny of the urgent to read widely, process contextually, reflect strategically, discern appropriately, and to pivot quickly. In summary, strategic thinking is creating an organizational architecture for the future, while consistently scanning the present, without compromising the organization’s identity (vision, mission, values, and principles).

How do we develop strategic thinking? Every leader will have a different model, but they will have a process to develop the model. Practical and common development tools are: (a) reading, observing, analyzing, and connecting trends; (b) identifying appropriate but expedited risk/reward decision models; and (C ) being comfortable in making high-risk decisions with less than 100% of the data (imperfect data-driven decision making.)

2. Speed of Change

The ability to change quickly requires optimizing data, being ruthless in building efficient business processes, identifying the right talent in the process (qualified by value and not necessarily by title), and processing with equal voice (not necessarily vote) by all who can make a contribution to the change. Decision making should be driven by knowledge rather than data or information. In the hierarchy of data, data is just that, raw data;  information is the interpretation of the data; knowledge is when information is contextualized; and wisdom when knowledge leads to a significant change of mindset. As an example: 7162901434 ia data i.e. 10 digits. It could be a phone number, bank account number etc. Showing it as (716) 290-1434 identifies it as a phone number which is not information. Identifying this phone number as being the mobile number for General Counsel is knowledge. Knowing that each call to this number is billable and should be used with discernment is wisdom! Too often leaders become “squatters” in the vast world of data, rather than investors in what knowledge can be gained from the data. Agile leaders are able to review and adapt with expedience if what they are presented with is knowledge rather than data. In the speed of change, only knowledge is valuable. The ability to present knowledge, as many leaders are aware, is not necessarily always available by following the design of an organizational chart. Agile leaders know where to find knowledge fast; are able to get the source of this knowledge into a room, and then make the best decision quickly. In addition to good knowledge in the speed of change, is the decision being trusted, the implication being that the leader must be trusted in order to have support in an agile model. Stephen Covey highlighted the importance of trust in his well known book, The Speed of Trust (2008). Trust in the leader is directly proportional to his/her ability to be agile and for followers to adapt as quickly. 

3. New organizational design models 

The hierarchical organizational chart that describes most organizations we lead can be an obstacle to agility. The history of the organization tree chart we are familiar with is almost two centuries old, and certainly our work seldom reflects the expansion of a national railroad system that the chart was originally designed for. The agile organizational structure is a non-hierarchical system of operating procedures that allows a business to be more flexible and respond quickly to shifts and changes in the market environment. It is characterized by fast activity cycles, customer-centricity, open communication, and a network of autonomous teams. In simple terms, agile organizations are not machines or production models. Hierarchical structures are relatively slow to process (think levels in your organization), can often be siloed, and vertical/horizontal information systems and decision making is slow with many potential breaks. 

Agility  is rapidly being successful in many organizations through “Scrums”, “Tribes”, organic teams who are focused, accountable and flexible within their own ecosystem (another whole topic for another day). Designing organizations with this flexibility, accountability, and productivity will be a necessary skill for the agile leader.

Resiliency can be defined “as the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.” For organizations to be resilient that must be elastic implying agility in their leaders. Being an agile leader can be characterized by many competencies and skills, but seldom without being a strategic thinker, being able to lead fast change, or having a flexible organization designed for having the best people available for the task, being empowered to do whatever they have to do (with little oversight), and achieving specific purposeful outcomes in a synergistic manner aiding the organization to instantly pivot.

Next week we will take a look at the need to be a thoughtful communicator as a leader in a VUCA world.

Resilient Leaders in a VUCA world – Being Courageous as a leader (3 of 11)

“Courage is grace under pressure” – Ernest Hemingway

We lead everyday in a context of external uncertainty and disruption. Change is constant, the future continues to be blurry, and we are leading followers who are expecting continuous optimism and glimmers of hope for sustainability in this chaotic world. It takes an enormous amount of courage to lead with resiliency in times of uncertainty; to persevere; to be persistent; and  to lead with confidence and conviction in an environment that is not only unpredictable, but appears to be out of control.  

The “Great Resignation” of 2021 (aka The Big Quit), where 8.6% and 7.2% of the US workforce resigned in the months of March and April 2021 (the highest to this date was 2.4%) may indeed be the indicator that the reserves of courage needed to lead had reached exhaustion!(See HBR: Who is driving the Great Resignations? – Ian Cook, September 15,2021).Leaders, especially leaders in uncertain times, definitely need courage in order to be resilient. The question then is what, if anything, characterizes a courageous leader? Harvard professor, Nancy Koehn explains that “a courageous leader is an individual who’s capable of making themselves better and stronger when the stakes are high and circumstances turn against that person.”  Substitute the word courageous with resilient and we have a wonderful description of what is required of us to lead in these uncertain times! There are probably many characteristics of a courageous leader, however in the context of resiliency and VUCA times, the following may indeed be the most important:

Courageous leaders are…

Authentic. They are self-aware, transparent in who they are and what they expect. They are ethical and moral. They are inclusive in how they lead. This authenticity not only develops trust, but provides confidence to the organization which in turn (1) predicts job satisfaction, (2) shows commitment to the organization’s identity, and (3) enables a healthy flourishing workplace.

Teachers. Many might remember the “learning organization” era of the 90’s with Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline. Resilient leaders certainly have to be learners, but must also be teachers by transforming and intentionally sharing their learning throughout the organization. Learning is only part of the transaction, but it only improves self. Completing learning is teaching. Teaching shows the application and knowledge as to how the learning might be utilized within the organization. Learning, assessing and teaching provides not only the ability to persevere through challenges, but provides the opportunity to grow stronger in the process of learning and listening. It takes courage as a leader to listen to others. As Sir Winston Churchill so eloquently stated,, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” 

Vulnerable. Courageous leaders have the ability to live with the discomfort of not knowing everything. Courageous leaders move from a know-it-all mindset to a learn-it-all mindset. These leaders acknowledge that they don’t need to have all the answers, and are the first to admit that they are not the only source of knowledge. This humility identifies a vulnerable leader.

Discerning. Courageous leaders distinguish or discern between “complicated” and “complex” issues. They are able to let go of perfectionism in order to maintain momentum. They have the courage to expect mistakes (risk/reward), and lead according to the situation and context they have at hand. Discernment is the ability to analyze quickly, make good judgment calls, and come to quick conclusions.

Disciplined. Courageous leaders take a systematic approach to understanding the complexity of the changing situation, possible responses, and pathways forward which are for the good of the organization and not biased to their own personal preferences or biases.

Networked. Courageous leaders consciously make it clear that they are not leading in a vacuum. They network and consult with other leaders internally and externally. They have a group of peers who have a unique set of unique experiences and perspectives different to their own that they can draw strategies and models from.

Future minded. In uncertain times the easy path for leaders  is to focus only on the present.  Courageous leaders certainly keep this present focus but never forget the context of what future scenarios might be. Keeping the end in mind when the world seems to be collapsing requires a leader with much courage.

It is not easy to be resilient in changing times, especially in the times that we are now experiencing, where the future continues to be uncertain.  It takes courage to bounce back over and over again, to be always optimistic, and to be authentic in your confidence for the future. Continue to be authentic; listen, learn, and then teach; be vulnerable; be discerning; be disciplined; build your peer networks; and never ever sacrifice the future for the sake of the present.

Resilient Leaders in a VUCA World – Being Understood as a Leader (2 of 11)

V – Being Visionary, U – Being Understood, C – Being Courageous, A – Being Agile

When the future is unpredictable and followers are looking for “something” to be sure of, being understood as a leader is imperative. As leaders we are aware of how important it is that our followers/organizations hear the intended meaning of what is being communicated and this meaning is shared and interpreted by the organization as a whole. Ambiguity of a leader’s intent does not lead to a healthy organization, or trust in the leader.

What is intended to be understood should at last communicate three elements: (1) What is significant, (2) what is purposeful, and (3) what success looks like. With a barrage of data and sometimes poor information being communicated on multiple media platforms (often using digital media), it is easy to misinterpret in the noise of volume what is really significant for the follower/organization to know. The growing permanence of hybrid workforce models increases the potential loss of hearing what is the “main thing.” Multigenerational workforces has amplified the particular importance of significance, specifically to the younger-aged working generation. This is significant as millennials will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. Surveys go on to show us that 40% of these millennials have stated that deriving meaning from their work is an important factor in excelling on the job. To be understood, leaders will need to be thoughtful in communicating significance or meaning often and clearly in support of the efforts of the organization.  A common leader comment heard is that being purposeful is synonymous with significance.  Being purposeful is determining clearly what needs to be accomplished with resolve. In times of change with multiple calls for attention being focused on that is important to energy and effort is indeed critical. Significance is the passion and “call” to make a difference through what the organization achieves. Both are needed and when there is a shared understanding we see informal collaboration, proactive resource allocation, and synergy in the workforce. Lastly, to be understood requires the leader to be articulate and precise of how success is to be measured. In the new era of outcomes vs being busy, success criteria that is shared transparently with the entire organization enables everyone to understand without ambiguity what success looks like, and how their individual efforts will be measured against this success.

However, as important as what is being communicated by the leader, is how the organization perceives the voice of the leader. People really only strive to understand the leader if they respect the leader. The leader’s character and the followers perception of the leader is often described in terms of not only their competency, but who they really are. Trusted and respected leaders today are frequently described as “Authentic leaders.”  There are several characteristics of authentic leaders but at minimum these four are essential: (1) Authentic leaders are self-aware. They know who they are, lead from who they are, and are genuine in aligning this self-awareness with how they lead. To lead differently from who they really are would be considered as not being genuine and therefore they are less likely to be trusted. (2) They are moral and ethical – enough said! (3) Authentic Leaders are balanced in the way they lead people. They are fair, solicit multiple perspectives, are not impulsive, but logical, transparent, and seldom “power up” to their organizational title. (4) They are transparent in their roles and relationships, implying that wherever feasible leaders are open and willing to share information proactively and willingly. Being understood requires the follower/organization to trust the leader’s intentions consistently and with confidence.

Communication is the vehicle of what and why to being clearly understood. Consistent communication is the fuel that drives the vehicle. In uncertain times the consistency of a verbal and written communications (notice not OR but AND), not only shares information, but anchors followers in their confidence in the leader. In the past 24 months successful leaders have utilized weekly memos, broadcasts, Team or ZOOM town hall meetings to communicate at least weekly (Monday Memo, CEO’s Weekly Update etc.). Followers want to know the context and what is significant for the future success of the organization, and then how are they significant in making this a reality in their workday.

In addition to communicating well, being understood with conviction, clarity, and consistency, content, and specifically how it impacts “me” in my role is essential. This is becoming more complex with the growing number of hybrid workforce models and by definition distributed followers.  In the phygital workforce model, three messages have to be clear: What are the outcomes and how will they be measured, what resources are available to me, and what am I empowered to do. Each of these elements would be a blog in themselves, but what we are learning is that activity and measurement by presence is no longer feasible, and if we are to trust our followers without physical presence. we have to be clear on precise outcomes, proactive resource allocation and management, and providing direction and space for the followers to be successful. A definite shift to focus on leading and leadership, and a little less on managing time, tasks and oversight.  

VUCA leaders certainly have to be visionary, but in disruptive times being clearly understood through trust, clarity, communication and clear expectations is more important for the leader who aspires to excellence than ever before. This demands a courageous leader – our topic for next week…

Resilient Leaders in a VUCA World – Being a Visionary Leader (1 of 11)

It might seem redundant or insulting to suggest that a VUCA leader also needs to be a visionary leader. How can a leader, especially an excellent leader, ever not be visionary?  Being visionary in times of uncertainty for any individual is hard, but in times of global disruption it is especially challenging. 

Followers in VUCA times are actively seeking a clarion voice that shouts confidence in the  future, and where their individual effort is an important and significant part in achieving that future. As few leaders have access to a “crystal ball” of the future, and are hopefully committed to being honest, authentic and integrous, how do they then share a future (vision) that the organization will commit to in confidence that it is also achievable? A mindset shift of how we articulate the future may be the secret to that successful strategy. As the future is less predictable in VUCA times, the visionary leader can either throw the proverbial dart, or alternatively frame their vision in three areas of focus: (1) What is the organization “rooted” by going forward into the future? (2) What will the organization be optimizing as we move forward into the future? and (3) why is this particular vision significant for every individual in the organization? (Note: Organization is synonymous with corporation in this series).

Our  memory muscles are being tested daily.  How we now shop (online, curbside service), how we are required to meet (masks, COVID tests), how we now travel publicly  (masks, COVID tests, sanitization), is radically different from anything we have experienced in our lifetime. Professionally it is very different – hybrid work forces, zoom meetings, social distancing, and totally digital processes are now institutionalized into the corporate future. The strategic planning life-cycle of what was once 10 years, many times reduced to three years, now has a 3 to 6 month horizon. Vision statements today cannot consist of growth goals, market share, geographic expansion, or one of the many traditional elements of a preferred future we once articulated as a vision. Today a vision statement has to be rooted in who we are and why we exist. In essence the corporate or organizational DNA of vision, mission and values. In today’s winds of change, our organizational roots have to be firm and deep. We may not know how hard and where the next force for change is coming, but we can be clear on why we exist, how we will behave, and what in an uncertain future is non-negotiable. Visionary leaders in uncertain times may not be able to identify a specific and tangible set of outcomes for the future, but they are able to assure their organization of what is certain: the mission/purpose and core values. Visionary leaders revisit, articulate, communicate continuously, and have a “one-page copy” of their organization’s identity in front of every employee constantly – be they at the office or working from home. Why we exist is the foundation to any vision for the future – it is what roots the organization regardless of tomorrow.

The second priority is “keeping the main thing, the main thing.” Planning for uncertainty is a complex and undesirable process for any leader of any organization. In disruptive times, the obvious place to turn to for some certainty is you as the leader. Many organizational leaders have quickly transitioned to scenario thinking as they attempt to share a vision for the future (and this is certainly not a bad strategy), however scenarios to the average follower often appear to be too ambiguous.  In a recent interview I was struck by a leader’s response to the question of whether this was the right vision for their organization. The answer was, “I don’t know, but the better question is what am I optimizing for ?” Visionary leaders in uncertain times are unambiguous in talking, walking, and keeping focus on what needs to be optimized for the future. Fundamentally is all our energy, efforts, resources detected to that one optimal goal. Is it customer service, efficiency, financial growth, quality…? Visions are generally multi-faceted, but in VUCA times it is becoming critical for the leader to speak, focus, and be unwavering on the area of focus that  has to be the first among equals. Clarity of the “one thing” that is to be optimized creates a shared vision and brings  focus to the organization in energy and effort. The visionary leader is crystal clear on the “one thing” that is essential for the mission and sustainability of the organization. Can all employees in your organization state the “one thing” that is critical for the future?

As important as being rooted in a strong organizational identity, and having focus on one thing, is a vision that shows clearly why am I (the follower) essential to this future? What is becoming increasingly important to the follower in being committed, being energized, and being passionate about the future, is what unique part do I play in this future. It is not a visionary leader who looks behind to see no followers!

“More than any other goal, millennials are dedicated to living a full life, and they’re not afraid to let their passion guide their decisions. They refuse to accept anything other than what they believe is a good fit for who they are and what they want to do with their time and talent. And they take this attitude into the heart of the workplace.” – Forbes, November 6, 2018. As millennials are now the growing core of followers in our organizations (and Gen Z have the same trait), this must be a key part of shared vision.

In summary: A VUCA world needs VUCA leaders, and VUCA leaders must be resilient to a changing future. Motivating followers with a shared vision is more important than ever before, but is more complex in uncertainty. The VUCA leader might consider more importance on how to address the future/present the vision than what that future might be. This approach may be framed by three questions: (1) What is the organization “rooted” by going forward into the future? (2) What will the organization be optimizing as we move forward into the future? and (3) why is this particular vision significant for every individual in the organization?

Resilient Leaders in a VUCA world

A 11-week series for leading in a VUCA world with resiliency

And then there was 2021 – the world has been in chaos for over 9 months, a vaccination protocol has been approved in the UK, US presidential elections were completed (more or less), and it seemed that “normality” was just starting to show light after a very dark year. However this was short-lived with riots in Washington DC, the Delta variant, and continued volatility in the economy. For leaders 2021 has almost been as complex as 2020, if not more volatile. There is little data to build on from the pre-2020 and new baselines are being determined almost every day – we are indeed beginning a new business era. By the way – an era is defined as a “a system of chronology dating from a particular noteworthy event” – I think by definition 2021 is the beginning of an era. And for this new era the world, organizations, will continue to need leaders who are both agile and certainly resilient.

It is perhaps too early to be absolutely confident of what will trend in the next few years, and how we will lead. but there are several emerging themes that will require much resilience from excellent leaders. There are loads of articles on trends and forecasts, however these five appear to be consistent and common in my research:

  1. Acceleration of digital business models;
  2. Hybrid workforce models;
  3. Agility and innovation as a norm in execution;
  4. Contactless service delivery and
  5. Organizational design that is built on outcomes, empowerment, and trust.

There is no need to expand on each of these, however what will be intriguing and is of personal interest is how we as leaders will need to adapt. The response I believe and the primary competency is resiliency. Resilience is defined as either (1) the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially be compressive stress, or (2) an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Both are definitions relevant to how I lead every day, take your pick!

This series of blogs (11 weeks) will expand on who the VUCA leader must be in this new era (Visionary, Understood, Courageous and Agile). This will be followed by 7 leader skills or competencies that must be prioritized to successfully lead with resiliency as we head into 2022. These competencies are:

  1. Being a thoughtful communicator
  2. Being an imperfect decision-maker
  3. Being a champion of collaboration
  4. Being a leader respected for their authenticity
  5. Being discerning when taking risks in real-time
  6. Being a Strategic Thinker
  7. Being empathetic to those who choose to follow us

As a learning community of leaders who aspire to lead with excellence, please comment, build, and share this conversation.

VUCA leaders in a VUCA world

VUCA, an acronym first used in 1987 (most sources citing the US Army College) stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, describes our world well in 2021.  Today, leaders, their organizations, and their strategic priorities must adapt and thrive in a VUCA world. As leaders we are held accountable to our stakeholders for impact of purpose, significance of effort, and sustainability in success of our organizations in this dynamic world. This VUCA world demands leaders who are Visionary, Understood, Courageous, and Agile. 

No one can deny (unless living on a deserted island) that the world has changed over the last 15 months, and it is the dawn of a new era. COVID-19 was indeed a black swan event. However, as significant as the pandemic is, if we look through the “PESTEL” model lens, we note political upheaval in global leadership changes and uncertainty (US elections, BREXIT, four elections in two years in Israel), China’s celebration of a century of communism and a growing resurgence of global influence and change in Hong Kong, Putin’s perennial term of office and the list goes on. Economically, we have experienced two global recessions in less than 15 years, unemployment, threats of unprecedented inflation, growing gaps between advanced and emerging economies, reduced output (GDP), and increased national protection of economies. Socially, the pandemic, vaccinations, increasing schisms in socio-economic peoples, immigration, increasing tension of opinion on the pace of the place of gender and sexual identity, health disparities, mental wellness, racism, remote work models, international collaboration without ease of travel, food shortages, and two years of unexpected online education, especially in the school systems, have and will have long-term impact. Technology and its impact on the world of business has continued to increase exponentially. The Smartphone is a necessity in our daily life, social media, tablets, cloud computing, smart watches, AI, QR code’s, and streaming is changing at a rate way beyond what was imagined when Moore’s law was first introduced in 1975. Environmentally, we are observing unprecedented climate change, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, locust plagues,and famines. There are now daily reports of record high temperatures, and the impact on ecosystems and human society. Legally, there has never been a time in history where there is so much at risk with uncertain regulation, compliance, nationalism, supply chain challenges, and financial instability.

It is certainly a VUCA world. However, leaders are appointed to achieve a purpose and are expected to meet the challenges.  There are numerous narratives on flourishing leaders who are flourishing and positively responding to this disruptive state, positioning their organizations to be successful, sustainable, and even to thrive. They have several traits and attributes, but these four are intrinsically evident. These leaders are Visionary, Understood, Courageous, and Agile.

The VUCA leader’s response:

To be a Visionary leader

It seems almost redundant to state that a leader must be visionary. However, by definition this type of leader is that person who has a clear idea of how the future should look, and in a VUCA world, that is not a simple or envious challenge. Anchored in their organizational identity (mission and values), visionary leaders are identifying a future that fulfills purpose that is grounded in flourishing for all stakeholders – both external and internal. They are ambassadors of significance and emphasize why every member of the organization is a vital contributor to the best future imaginable. The vision is shared by the community, and is no longer just the purview of senior leadership and this shared vision is communicated clearly, consistently, and with passion and energy. There is no doubt at any level of the organization that there is a path to a future and they are integral in the vision’s success.

To be a leader that is Understood

In a chaotic world the leader must be clearly understood as to what is significant, purposeful, achievable, and successful.  The key themes of the leader who is understood by their organization is character, clarity, communication, and consistency.  Authenticity and transparency has never been more needed by today’s increasingly fragile workforce. The leader’s followers are desperately seeking that person who is genuine and empathetic, while still being the person they respect as their “commander” of the enterprise.  Character (being authentic, honest, integrous) must be evident in a VUCA world.  Clarity and consistency by the leaders in determining priorities toward this new future, with shared understanding by the entire enterprise is essential in an uncertain world- there is a critical desire for stability in the work environment and its genesis must be the organization’s most senior leaders. Communicating these priorities, why they are important, how they are to achieved, and what resources are to be allocated, provides understanding by all stakeholders of what is expected of them,  and how they are to be held accountable. Being clearly understood as a leader in disruptive times helps alleviate anxiety and should result in mitigating against resistance, hopefully converting this into productive energy and positive outcomes.

To be a Courageous leader

“The one characteristic that I am very comfortable saying that all remarkable leaders in big business, small business, not-for-profit, military, government, and the arts, have to have is courage” (Sinek, 2017). Leadership transition is at one of the highest levels in recent history. In a December 2020 HBR article titled, “Why capable people are reluctant to lead”, three specific types of risk emerged: interpersonal risk, image risk, and the risk of being blamed for failure. Being a leader is risky and that is why leaders need to be courageous. This was true before the pandemic, and will continue to be true into the future.  To be innovative, pioneer new opportunities, change when the world is changing, requires courage.  It takes courage to follow their “true north” when there appear to be easier pathways. Balancing heart, mind, and the leadership “burden” of being ultimately responsible for people’s well-being, and future, is not a task for the faint-hearted. Maya Angelo, the great American poet, said “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

To be an Agile leader

Flexibility, adaptability, and strategic thinking are all leadership traits we think of when reflecting on a leader’s agility. Agile leaders are willing to change, are able to change, and change at a pace unprecedented in their enterprise’s history. Agility is the leader’s primary tool in leading the organization from survival, through sustainability, to a future where the organization will thrive.  Ideas are assessed and executed for results quicker than ever before. New workforce models that are virtual, technology centered, with terms like “tribes” and “scrums” are now common organizational development vocabulary for agile organizations. Agile leaders promote a strategic-thinking mindset where there are intentional and rational thought processes that focus on the analysis and interpretation of critical external factors and variables that might influence the future success of the organization. This is the emerging culture fundamental to organizations who are to be successful in a VUCA world.  Nurturing a culture for making decisions and measured risk requires leaders to be mentally agile (making sense of changing external patterns), intellectually curious (always learning), creative, intuitive, an information junkie, an analyst, a systematic thinker, and an excellent and expedited decision maker (great acumen). Agile organizations can only exist with agile leaders – being agile in a VUCA world is non-negotiable.

As leaders we rely on our past experiences, and they will continue to be the center of who we are and how we lead. The challenge in leading toward an uncertain future is that the future will have little resemblance to the past. Leading through the dawn of this new era of leadership post-pandemic will not only be different, it will demand a new emphasis on learning again what it means to be a leader respected by followers. Every aspect/learning of the professional world in which we apprenticed as emerging leaders, will now become more intense, transparent, automated, unbundled, intelligent, and dynamic . This new era will extend leaders as never before, starting with a willingness to be more visionary, better understood, courageous, and agile.

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