Leading in a VUCA world
In the late 1990s, the US War College developed the term VUCA to describe the kind of world US military officers would encounter: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. In the last two decades, this prescient terminology has become commonplace in business and entrepreneurial literature as a number of variables and forces (e.g. Arab Spring, Brexit, Climate Change, Donald Trump) make the world less predictable and more chaotic.
To lead their their organizations in a VUCA world, leaders are asked to be agile (borrowed from software company routines), use multiple perspectives (increased awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion), develop scenario planning (especially the idea of cognitive dissonance), and use ready, fire, aim type interventions to prevent inaction in the face of chronic crises.
Education certainly has faced VUCA type interventions in the last two decades, and COVID-19 has been a tsunami scale VUCA event for K-12 schools. The pandemic has upended long-cherished notions of "best-practices" in education and revealed them to be ill-suited for online and self-directed learning for students at home. While physically distanced in their homes, technology has also collapsed the school walls allowing teachers to connect with students in dining rooms and kitchen tables, with pets and parents wandering in and out of a porous classroom. Exams and tests that we once swore by as being "objective" became subject to rampant cheating and revealed themselves to be inadequate to measuring student learning.
So how do leaders navigate a VUCA world?
Bill George at Harvard Business School offers the authentic leadership framework that he has been developing over the last two decades as a model (2003) as a way to lead in a chaotic world.
Authentic leaders in George's view:
1. Have a strong sense of purpose;
2. Strong values about the right thing to do;
3. Establish trusting relationships with others;
4. Demonstrate self-discipline and act on their values; and
5. Are sensitive and empathetic to the plight of others.
Think Terry Fox over Donald Trump; Patagonia over Enron as examples of authentic leaders and organizations.
Building on this framework, for our post-COVID VUCA world, George suggests these values as VUCA 2.0 for leaders to lead:
Vision: we must understand our true north and our values so that we are not pushed and pulled by fads, something that educational institutions have particularly been susceptible to (e.g. phonics, genius hour etc.) in previous decades.
Understanding: we need to develop deep understanding of ourselves, our organizations, and the field by listening to diverse voices, including dissenting opinions, and gathering meaningful data. Confirmation bias is the enemy and our psychological need to be right has to be countered. Here George is aligned with Brene Brown's work on vulnerability (2018) to combat leaders' isolation from truthful data and employee feelings (see also Schein & Schein, 2017) in their organizations. As Satya Nadella noted, being a learn-it-all is better than being a know-it-all, and learning requires humility.
Courage: we need to be courageous and act knowing that we will never have complete information, or that some of our information will inevitably be flawed. Bold moves in iterative cycles of reflection and learning (see Edmondson, 2008) that use scientific and design methodologies of learning by experimentation and modelling will be key to gaining knowledge through action.
Adaptability: we need to be flexible in our thinking and adapt to rapidly changing environments. Multiple contingency plans and scenario plans can help us pivot quickly. This aspect is likely the one to generate most pushback in schools as we have accepted and encouraged stable long-range planning as de rigueur in education. Quick and numerous shifts can give the appearance of blowing in the wind to stakeholders if they don't understand the why behind the action. Thus, transparency and allowing stakeholders to do meaningful work (see Heifetz et al., 2009) and own the change is key to an adaptable organization.
In my view, George's VUCA 2.0 framework offers a combination of stability (Vision, Understanding) and flexibility (Courage, Adaptability) to help organizations succeed in a VUCA world.
The first two aspects of VUCA 2.0 are really about knowing oneself and learning about the world. Developing a strong sense of self and then questioning it using multiple and diverse perspectives readies us for the flexible stage. This is the grounding in authentic leadership.
The second two aspects of George's VUCA 2.0 model caution us against becoming static and complacent in our own grounding. We must still engage and engage quickly and often with the changing world. It doesn't suit us to be monkish and removed from the world, rather we must make friends with intelligent failure (see Edmondson, 2019) without losing sight of our core values and purpose.
I see this stability as equivalent to core knowledge and skills that educators have always imparted through schools. The flexibility aspect is the newer student-centred inquiry and agency that we have embraced in the last few years. However, as educators have come to realize, inquiry and exploration is important to learning, but is most effective when built on a strong foundation of core knowledge and skills. So we need all four components for success and well-being.
While my own thinking on leadership in a VUCA world resonates with George's work and Edmondson's work, my one critique of this model comes from neuroscience. Learning is a shift in the homeostatic setpoint. If I used to know x and worked from x, then new learning shifts me to y and now I work from y. For example, imagine that someone was acting from a racist lens because of their prior learning and experiences. Now they use vulnerability and reflection to shift their thinking and behaviour to an anti-racist stance (Kendi, 2019). Such a person has grown from old values to new values. For such a transformation to happen in George's VUCA 2.0 model, Courage and Adaptability has to feedback and change Vision and Understanding. So the four components are not so much layers as they are a learning cycle for personal and organizational growth to engage with an ever-changing world.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead : brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. Random House.
Edmondson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization. In The Fearless Organization. Wiley.
George, B. (2003). Authentic leadership : rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value. Jossey-Bass.
Harvard Business Review (2017). Authentic Leadership (HBR Emotional Intelligence Series)(1st ed.). Harvard Business Review Press.
Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009) The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Review Press.
Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an Antiracist. One World.
Schein, E., & Schein, P. (2018). Organizational culture and leadership (5th Ed.). Wiley.