As a student of history and an avid reader of historical books, I often wonder what the world was like before the Great War of 1914 – 1918. Did people back then find the world they lived in busy, unpredictable, subject to dramatic and uncertain change, confusing, noisy, and incessantly rushed? From my vantage point, life seems to have been more genteel. In my own lifetime, the pace of living has changed exponentially. The quantity of data that floods us is simply astonishing. I read somewhere recently that we have been hit with more information in the last two and half years than in the rest of history!
One thing is certain: we are infinitely more connected in infinitely more ways than anyone who came before us could have dreamed possible. General George W. Casey, retired U.S. Army Chief of Staff, referred to this sense of being overwhelmed by the flood of information and change when he recently addressed graduate officers. He used the acronym VUCA to capture the essence of the world today. Developed in the US Military and apparently initially used in “special operations,” VUCA stands for: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
VUCA is a very useful way of beginning to understand the world we are in. The reality is that is our world is the way it is because we have made it that way. All of human ingenuity has contrived to make the world bigger and smaller at the same time; faster and slower; more accessible and significantly less accessible; simpler and infinitely more complex. These paradoxes create the whirl of confusion in our brains. The problem is that the more expert the experts become, the more they have to have tunnel vision in order to grow their expertise. In turn, that they live in tighter and tighter cocoons.
To a lesser extent, VUCA is beginning to happen to us in terms of our education, financial status, and interests. It is in this condition that the world’s biggest democracy, India, and South Africa face their general elections. How is it possible for people to make sense of all the conflicting messaging with which they are bombarded?
In this environment, people seek leaders and leadership that is able to Smooth the Volatility, Reduce the Uncertainty, Decipher the Complexity, and Remove the Ambiguity. This is what the best leaders do. In fact, this is what the world’s best leaders have always done. Within the last few generations, Churchill, Roosevelt, Gandhi, and Mandela had an amazing knack for bringing extremely complex concepts within touching distance of the most humble amongst us. Today, there seems to be too few of these types of leaders to help us to make sense of all the complexity around us.
Here’s what we should expect from leaders at every level in society, including government:
- They must provide us with a clear and unequivocal picture or vision of the future. This picture must be sufficiently inspiring for us to want to be co-creators of the future vision.
- Our leaders must communicate clearly and simply to help us understand the context and issues in which we are expected to live, work, perform. This means that leaders have to stop and listen actively to what the people they purport to lead are actually saying to them. This will create understanding, which will enable them to communicate better.
- The mission of the leader, once he has created his picture of the future and properly understood the people, is to clarify the future relative to the present. He or she must also reveal the pathway as best he sees to get from where we are to to where we need to go. One speech will not do it. Nor will memos or PowerPoint presentations. It will require being present, being mindful, reaching out, listening to reactions, explaining again and again and again. This is the only way to gain the trust of the people so that they put their trust in the hands of the leader. Once he has done this, he has their heads and their hearts.
- The final essential necessity is to ensure that everyone understands. In this world, we need to be able to move as fast as a cheetah, change as quickly as a chimp, and have the perseverance of an elephant to see things through to the end.
This is the VUCA world. It is our world and we should demand that our leaders lead us accordingly!
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