We’re living in tumultuous times. Every day, numbers bombard us—about the pandemic, the economy, politics. On both an individual and organizational level, we’re forced to continually respond and adapt to major changes that impact every aspect of our lives.
But remember: this is isn’t the first time we’ve lived with uncertainty. And throughout the years, leaders from Winston Churchill to Warren Buffett have managed to chart a course through rough waters. Like them, today’s leaders must motivate and inspire their people through challenging times.
Living With VUCA
During the 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet Union created a period of great uncertainty and ambiguity. The Cold War was over. But what would follow? In 1987, the U.S. Army War College coined the acronym VUCA, standing for “Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.” VUCA both described the geopolitical climate and provided a framework for managing the new environment.
The pandemic has all the elements of VUCA. For instance, there’s a volatile economic environment impacted by rising COVID-19 cases. Uncertainty about when a vaccine will be widely distributed. A complex interplay of public health, economic and political issues. And, a lot of ambiguity because we have no clear, tried and true path to follow.
Leading During VUCA Times
While there may not be a textbook solution to leading during such times, years of research and experience point to the key behaviors of successful leaders. With those in mind, here’s a new interpretation of VUCA, one that can help leaders succeed in this uncertain world.
When things ahead are steeped in uncertainty, people need clarity and guidance. Great leaders of the past have developed strong followings because they were able to communicate a vision for a future that no one had demonstrated before. American scholar and pioneer of leadership studies Warren G. Bennis said, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Good leaders shine a spotlight on opportunity, possibility and a better future. It’s that vision, that new articulation of core purpose, which gives people something to strive towards.
Uncertainty presents the opportunity to step back and gain greater understanding. U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Good leaders ask a lot of questions. What does the new landscape look like? How has the market changed? When faced with risk, it’s time to reexamine your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. What do stakeholders want from the organization, be they customers, investors, employees, business partners or the community at large?
Asking these questions will help you meet everyone’s needs as well as inform your short-term and long-term decisions. For example, people working from home need robust communications tools to connect to customers, colleagues and business partners. When the pandemic began, perhaps your organization jumped on upgrading its systems (short-term decision). But are those solutions strong enough to meet your needs going forward (long-term decision)? Understanding what your stakeholders want in the new environment is the beginning of meeting their long-term needs.
Communication becomes critical during times of upheaval. Because conditions change so quickly, leaders must pass on information as soon as they can. While this may sometimes feel like overcommunication, it’s important to strike the right balance for your organization and your stakeholders. As former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “The difference between mere management and leadership is communication.”
Communicate your vision and core values. Show empathy for others. Be visible and available. Use telecommunications tools to hold town hall meetings or daily check-ins with staff. Bring vendors and business partners into the loop, explaining how new strategies will impact them and getting their buy-in. Be proactive. Reach out to stakeholders before they come to you. It inspires confidence and assures them you have their concerns in mind.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew a thing or two about acting in a VUCA world, having led during the Great Depression and World War II. “Take a method and try it,” he said. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But, by all means, try something.” At the core of FDR’s thinking was the need to adapt and act. It’s about being resilient, or able to respond thoughtfully to change.
However, adaptability is needed throughout the organization, not just in decisions made at the top. Not only do teams need to be nimble, they need a clear mandate, driven by the organization’s vision and core purpose.
A good example of adaptability and effective communications is occurring in hospitals all over the world today. Administrators, doctors, nurses and other stakeholders meet daily, sometimes several times, to triage. Who needs more PPEs? What patients must be moved? What equipment is needed and where?
A reliable and flexible communications system enables them to share files easily, use visuals in their discussions and make decisions in real time. Presence technology allows people to easily locate colleagues, whether they’re on-site or on-call. With web-based communications, staff can connect on any device – phone, laptop, tablet – from any location. All they need is an Internet connection.
To make good decisions quickly in times of rapid change, leaders also need to work closely with external stakeholders like vendors, suppliers and community leaders. For example, a business may decide to shift part of its supply chain to using local suppliers, which results in faster deliveries to customers while simultaneously supporting local employment.
We’ve Been Here Before
“You know, people talk about this being an uncertain time,” said Warren Buffett. “[But] all time is uncertain. I mean, it was uncertain back in 2007, we just didn’t know it was uncertain. It was uncertain on September 10th, 2001. It was uncertain on October 18th, 1987, you just didn’t know it. We always live in an uncertain world.
This isn’t the first time our world has been rocked by crisis. It may feel different because it’s our present, not someone else’s past. But today we have the communications tools to manage volatility more effectively. Imagine what working from home would look like without web-based communications.
As the “new normal” changes almost every day, leaders can rely on the basics: a strong, clear vision; understanding changes in the market and with your stakeholders; connecting and communicating quickly and with purpose; and adapting and acting.