How to Lead Wisely in a VUCA World

I started my career in the mortgage industry back in 1985, and nine years into my business, I thought things were going well. I’d built a $135 million branch. That led to the opportunity to lead and coach our entire production team of more than 250 people in 17 offices throughout the western United States.

And then one day, I woke up to a new competitor.

It was 1994, and home savings and loan companies had re-entered the mortgage space with adjustable rate mortgages my team and I couldn’t beat. It must have been like what Blockbuster experienced when they suddenly saw Netflix coming, or what a lot of grocery stores started experiencing when Amazon bought Whole Foods. It was disruptive.

At the time, I didn’t know how to describe what we were experiencing. But now I call it VUCA.

VUCA’s Impact on Leaders

“VUCA” was coined in 1987 at the end of the Cold War, when General Maxwell P. Thurman of the U.S. Army War College described the state of the world as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

It’s what my team and I were working through as we tried to adapt to the new players in the mortgage industry, and it’s what many leaders are dealing with in our current business world.

Today, technology is changing rapidly; globalization has given us access to more knowledge and awareness of our competitors than ever before; and society is expecting us to rapidly respond to the way they’re communicating and consuming content. All of this leads to a state of VUCA, which typically evokes fear and anxiety. VUCA can pull us into a state of confusion, paralysis or apathy. And when we live in this space, VUCA limits our ability to make the decisions needed to not only survive but thrive.

Now more than ever, I see leaders running from meeting to meeting, correspondence to correspondence, living and working reactively. Many of us haven’t set boundaries or rules that enable us to perform at peak levels, and instead we find ourselves responding to the latest notification ding.

It’s difficult to march forward with confidence, because this VUCA world has crowded out our ability to stop and think, question, challenge, reflect and look for alternatives.

This lack of margin for curiosity has become one of the greatest limiters to leadership effectiveness today. Because if there’s one solution to VUCA, it’s curiosity.

Successful leader looking out window in a volatile, uncertain, and complex work environment

The Antidote to Fear

Nearly 25 years since that mortgage industry meltdown, I can feel the pull of VUCA in my current business.

When I started this executive coaching company years more than two decades ago, we had virtually no competition. Today, there are competitors everywhere. I recently listened to a podcast interview with the founder of a tech-based professional coaching company who had raised $36 million in startup cash.

How crazy! I bootstrapped my companies start in 1996 with an investment of less than $50,000.

But that doesn’t create uncertainty for me. It creates opportunity. I get radically excited, because if a brand-new company gets that kind of interest, what about a company with more than 20 years of experience? I want to take advantage of the time we’re in right now. I want to fully lean in and make disruptive improvements — and I’m genuinely curious about what our company is going to look like 10 or 20 years from now.

It’s times like these that bring me back to one of my favorite quotes from Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz: “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”

We can respond to VUCA with fear and anxiety, or we can choose to ask more questions; to talk to customers, teammates and mentors; and to be the most curious cats in town.

So, let’s ask ourselves: What does this make possible? Who can we become?  What can we now accomplish?  Where’s the new opportunity? What’s the new solution? How can we better serve our customers and make a greater difference? And how can we do it in the midst of VUCA?

Leading Through VUCA

We can’t avoid VUCA, but we can choose how we respond to it. By choosing to face it with curiosity, we’ll position ourselves to win.

Curiosity impacts our thinking, our beliefs and how we feel about ourselves and others. It pulls us out of reactive mode and puts us back into the driver’s seat, so we can bring our best to our clients and everyone else around us.

No matter what level of VUCA we’re experiencing, curiosity will equip us to move forward with courage, clarity and confidence.


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