The Mark Divine BLOG: Leading in a VUCA World – Part 1

Leading in a VUCA World- Part 1


The Department of Defense never misses an opportunity to coin a new acronym, which soon becomes part of the daily lexicon of the initiated. Anyone not “read in” is left in the dark as to what the heck is being discussed. The acronym VUCA is relatively new (coined in the 1990s), and is currently slipping the bonds of the Pentagon and entering the common vernacular – especially in the context of global leadership as well as in business and organizational studies.

VUCA was coined in part to describe the modern battlefield in a post-cold war era but now looks very much like the world we all face day in and day out. The recent event in Orlando is a testament to that, an early warning shot in the migration of the so-called war on terror to our homeland. VUCA stands for “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous,” which all characterize the evolving conditions around the world.

As leaders we need to learn how to navigate and lead in a VUCA world, to become “VUCA leaders.” Continuing to rely on the same strategies and tactics that worked in the past will yield poor results, further increasing personal and organizational stress. According to my friend Sean Esbjörn-Hargens of MetaIntegral Associates, Inc, this is called “The Complexity Gap.”

The complexity gap exists when the complexity of a situation exceeds a leader’s cognitive and emotional ability to process the information, exceeds their capacity to coordinate the many essential perspectives involved, and overwhelms their process of meaning making and thus short circuits their ability to act with power, presence, and agility. The gap appears to be accelerating because leaders continue to rely on “horizontal” learning as their primary developmental tool. Thus they have few arrows in their quiver, and the arrows they do have are old and not very pointy.

Horizontal learning is skill development typified by traditional leadership development curriculums, which focus on developing the transactional skills of the leader. They include things such as decision-making, communication, planning, and execution. Now I am not suggesting that horizontal skills are not worth developing, indeed, they are crucial. But…they are just one piece of the puzzle. The other piece that allows us to lead in a VUCA world and overcome the complexity gap is “vertical learning.”

Vertical learning is about developing one’s consciousness and evolving the mindset that knows the horizontal skills. Vertical learning leads to transformation, a transformation that elevates the leader to new plateaus where perspectives are fresh, more inclusive and connected. While horizontal learning adds to what we know, vertical learning transforms how we know. So horizontal learning gives us a bigger toolbox and vertical learning gives us a wider range of vision from which to see how we might make use of those tools. When the leader leverages both vertical and horizontal learning strategies, more nuanced, multi-dimensional decisions are seen and then executed with more integrated power and presence.

Though transformation is often talked about in leadership training circles, it is rarely taught or trained. That’s because transformation is very personal and almost impossible to effect or train through traditional modes of learning, such as a seminar or an online curriculum. In next week’s post I will address vertical learning and the skills one needs to become a true leader in a VUCA world.

To vision, understanding, clarity and agility!

–Mark Divine

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