Leadership Learnings in VUCA Times

By Kenneth Lean

The world seems to be a rollercoaster ride like never before. The most powerful nations are getting challenged with a dynamism that is forcing long term plans to shrink into very short strategies. Strategists are grappling in the embrace of uncertainty as innovation through technology keeps propping up from unexpected quarters. The opportunities through technology is making entrepreneurship verily possible even in small little sleepy towns. 

Every corporate giant is finding a competitor sprouting out from unexpected places. This makes leadership more exciting, challenging and painstaking; which has led to thudding falls of organisations and individuals. The character of leaders in this transformational journey is being tested on a day-to-day basis – even more a reason that leaders learn to let go and rise in their fall. The question that many businesses are struggling to find answers to is, Is there a way out without falling prey to these disruptions. Can organisations build leadership capabilities to lead industry disruptions, than fall victim to it? The only alternative is to be agile and learn from VUCA times, on the feet and on the run!

The learning cycles for leaders are shrinking, and probably many proven management principles are being challenged, and many re-written. Recently during a coffee conversation, a leader was sharing that his organisation of over 100,000 people has lost about 20 leaders in the last half year. Many of those exiting were shifting career lines, causing panic in the conservative leadership that existed. The current leadership, he believed, was struggling to hold together an organisation that was till recently expected to grow rapidly in the next five years. What could be the reason? The current leadership had not been able to anticipate the challenges from agile and young start-ups. These leaders in their swollen pride have not been able get whiteboards and their grey cells to work for them. Their dependency on their successful past is not allowing them to learn in these falling times.

Many leaders keep talking about their past successes, it is however about time to talk about what one can do of the future.

The number of years spent in doing the same thing is not real experience. On the contrary, just simply learning different ways of rising during the little falls in the pit holes of an otherwise smooth road – is what actually turns experience into value. Never has the Law of Constraints been more relevant. Leaders of these large corporations are well used to being challenged with the constraints of resources like machinery, people and money, but NOW the constraints are of 'ideas'. The tired and old brains camping in soundproof cabins refused to listen to the changing world outside. The young innovative brains have already shifted the game away from these large corporations, to small garages of ticking minds. There isn't time for blame games here; it is indeed time for learning and listening, and not lecturing. Many leaders keeping talking about their past successes, it is however about time to talk about what one can do of the future.

Most of the jobs and roles may disappear before you can push back the ergonomic chairs and stand up to face the world. The role of chairs has shifted to some garage filled with innovative ideas. Leaders need to take solace of their experience and adapt to these fast-paced changes happening around. That said, all is not well with the new world too, but then these are learners. The solution is in trying to find out where the wise people of the past can add in and rise along with the young generation. Mentorship is important for these young entrepreneurs in areas like mentorship for organisation building, scaling of markets and value creation.

However, adapting to their style of learning is something the experienced leaders need to understand. Classrooms are no longer learning labs, so where does one teach or learn? Or rather, how does one approach learning? Experienced leaders need to think young and teach to question, not just to throw answers; simply because the same questions may stay relevant, but the answers to them are definitely shifting. Leaders with experience need to learn to re-shape their personality. Some of the things they need to leave behind are their ego, prestige, impulsiveness and authoritative behaviour.

It sure is time to depend on the most tested traits of EQ and be a learner while coaching. Times might look tough but for the learner it is always exciting to explore new paths, re-discover oneself and see every fall as an upward movement. Empathy, adaptability, influence, transparency and continuous learning are traits leaders need to build on to manage these changing times. Oliver Holmes probably stays relevant today when he says, Man's mind once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.

If your backpack is equipped with a great attitude and an open mind, the journey will be an educating one. In every fall, there will be a new way to rise up again.

  • Leadership