Navigating a New World of Uncertainty

Transforming Leadership (1/4)

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. These four characteristics, or VUCA for short, increasingly define our world. Large organizations must grapple with disruptive change in technology, competitor dynamics, and consumer expectations – along with high levels of market volatility and increasing uncertainty and complexity in politics and regulation. Individual leaders, too, must understand this new world and work out how to navigate it.

To picture just how radical the change is that we are living through, imagine someone falling asleep in the early 1990s and waking up today. He or she would have difficulty reading people’s behaviors and dealing with some of the simplest tasks in everyday life. Among other major shifts, the digital revolution has transformed our world, modified our everyday behaviors, and introduced new patterns of communication.

These changes were not predictable, and neither are the changes ahead. In the economic sphere, the most respected authorities including Alan Greenspan admitted that they had not been able to predict the 2008 financial crisis. Despite all their knowledge, despite the power of the most powerful computers, no calculation was made to predict what would happen – not unlike in the early 2000s, when the first internet bubble burst.

How do we embrace this complex new reality? To resolve an equation with too many variables, one has to go beyond pure rationalism and mathematics. I am convinced that the answer to VUCA lies is in relying more on intuition, admitting to not knowing, and embracing open-minded learning. For most individual leaders, that will mean a profound shift in mindset – and the courage to unlearn lifelong habits.

Just as important, these leaders will need to think through how VUCA affects their teams and organizations. The new generation of talent cares about sustainability and contributing to society, and many are involved in the new sharing economy. At work, they seek opportunities to innovate, create, have fun, and continue to learn. If an employer fails to satisfy their expectations, they will be less afraid than their parents to leave the traditional career path and venture into start-ups or part-time jobs.

We are facing deep transformations, the sense and direction of which are difficult to predict. Just when everything seemed to have been explained, calculated and measured, our world is turned upside down. Even savvy, successful executives can feel helpless. But still we must lead – and turn VUCA into an opportunity to learn, grow, and become more conscious human beings.

Transforming Leadership

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