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LeaderShift 2020 – Navigating the World of VUCA: How Consciousness Allows Leaders to Handle Complexity
By Joe Hunt
If you find that the complexity and pace of business is accelerating, you’re not alone. While we have invented many time-saving tools to help us manage work in a 24/7 world, sometimes it can feel like we’re swimming as fast as we can just to keep pace. Getting ahead is another challenge. When’s the last time you got something done in advance?
There’s a deeper problem here than just getting things done. If you’re in any kind of management position, you may have noticed that it’s not just the fast pace that’s accelerating. Things are getting more complex, more networked, more interdependent. Which means we have to think differently about consequences and the interplay of things. Leaders are more challenged by this complexity than ever before.
More complexity means that cause and effect isn’t as simple as it used to be. Sorting out what truly matters from what we can live with and what we know from what we can’t know yet is a major headache. Welcome to the world of VUCA where we work in an escalating global environment steeped in:
The futurist Bob Johansen in his book Leaders Make the Future (Berrett-Koehler, 2012) describes a VUCA world. Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams, authors of Mastering Leadership and founders of The Leadership Circle agree with Johansen’s analysis, but also include a fifth variable: Market Disruption.
In 2010, IBM surveyed 1500 global CEOs about their challenges and strategies for coping (Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study). Here are the top two challenges of CEOs:
- Escalating complexity
- Building the creative capacity in leadership to deal with it.
“Developing leaders who can navigate complexity is now a strategic priority —and, if done well, a competitive advantage. Beyond developing competency and capability, we need to develop leaders with courage and compassion, consciousness and character.”
The top two accurately represent biggest challenges for all for leaders. Working faster, longer, and harder isn’t going to help unless leaders are properly equipped with the capacity to handle complexity.
Pace and complexity are not likely to diminish. There’s no promise for a calmer future, even with innovative time-saving tools that promise to do more with less. How then, can we learn to handle complexity?
Leaders are already working long, hard and fast. And most of them are pretty smart to begin with.
Yet some of the leaders I talk with feel like something more is needed. Some new formula, a new concept or managerial fad; something they can do to relieve the burden of stress and strain; to feel once again like they’re “in control;” on top of the incessant demands on their time, skills, and knowledge.
Some feel like they’re in over their heads, while others are hoping that the current challenges are just a passing phase. But pace and complexity do not let up. As one challenge passes, another pops up. The business environment is never settling down, it’s only getting more creative, chaotic, and complex.
Consciousness Embraces Complexity
What if the ability of leaders to handle complexity was contingent upon one’s level of consciousness? What does that even mean? What I am discovering through research and practice has inspired a new level of thinking related to leadership abilities and competencies. Everything continues to point towards one commonality: The Inner Game – a topic I’ve previously touched on in an earlier volume.
Psychologists have known for a long time that children progress through developmental stages, both physically and mentally. So do adults. We don’t stop growing and maturing mentally throughout adulthood. However, many get stuck at certain levels. Adults progress through developmental levels not according to age, but according to their individual consciousness and maturity. A 20 or 30-year-old is capable of wisdom just as a 70-year-old can display immaturity and egotism.
Similarly, leaders also exist at different developmental levels, and can vary greatly in maturity and ability to handle challenges. Here’s what “level of consciousness” means as applied to the developmental stage of leaders:
“Performance, individually and collectively, is always consistent with our level of consciousness. We cannot perform at a higher level of performance than is built into our operating system. Likewise, an organization cannot perform at a higher level of performance than the collective consciousness of its leadership.”
The level of maturity for leaders – both individually and collectively – must be advanced to handle the challenges facing organizations in today’s VUCA world. Consciousness of leaders must continue to evolve to higher levels to meet the complexity of 21st century business challenges.
As we begin to understand adult developmental stages as described by the psychologists, we can correlate that knowledge into a better comprehension of the developmental stages of leaders. We can further apply this knowledge toward determining how to leaders at different stages of development can positively impact business performance throughout varying levels of an organization.
Most leadership development programs are going about things incorrectly. Instead of training the outer competencies like strategy, finance, and communication, perhaps more focus should be given to developing leaders’ inner games and operating systems. This type of “leadershift” would surely yield leaders whom possess the agility and creative capacity required to navigate the World of VUCA.
Joe Hunt is a Managing Partner at Hunt Executive Search/The Hunt Group, a boutique executive search firm that provides human capital solutions to consumer goods, retail, life sciences and diversified industrial markets.