In November 2021, Dr. Lieutenant Colonel Kenji Takano, commander of the U.S. Air Force’s 88th Healthcare Operations Squadron, posed a question that every business leader needs to ask him- or herself: How can we thrive in a VUCA environment?
“VUCA” is an acronym developed in the 1990s by the U.S. Army War College that stands for “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex” and “Ambiguous.” It is also one that is sadly befitting of the time in which we live. The pandemic has without question resulted in volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Millions have lost their lives, and millions more have seen their lives turned upside down.
While healthcare obviously bore the brunt of the aftershocks of this crisis, other industries have hardly been immune. There have been shutdowns and slowdowns, layoffs and furloughs, and no sooner did the corporate world begin to emerge from all that upheaval than the “Great Resignation” began, which saw a record average of 3.95 million Americans depart their jobs each month in 2021.
As a result, it has been incumbent upon leadership to roll with the punches – to understand the rugged new terrain they must now navigate, and adapt accordingly. This sort of agile leadership requires greater resilience, as well as openness to new ideas and possibilities.
Takano cites the “VUCA Prime” approach of Robert Johansen, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley. In Johansen’s way of thinking, “VUCA” stands not for the above but for “Vision, Understanding, Clarity” and “Agility,” qualities that business leaders would do well to adopt.
Johansen developed this concept well before the pandemic. As he explained in a 2017 presentation, “If you think 10 years ahead, it’s going to get worse. It’s not going to get better. It’s not going to get calmer. It’s not going to go back to the way it was. It’s going to get more VUCA.”
Unfortunately, he was correct – and sooner than any of us might have feared. As he added in that 2017 presentation: “The big lesson from the VUCA World about strategy is you have to be very clear where you’re going, but very flexible how you get there.”
In short, agility is everything. Management consultant Erick Masgo wrote in 2021 that agile leaders inspire experimentation, collaboration, and innovation. Several business leaders amplified that point for Forbes, mentioning that the most agile among them were “comfortable being uncomfortable,” that they were “open to shifting” and also curious and self-aware.
The benefits run deep, according to Masgo. Agile leaders empower the workforce. They motivate every member of the team, make them more energetic, confident, and responsive. Moreover, these leaders create an environment in which continuous learning occurs.
In short, they make the organization more resilient, more capable of surviving (if not thriving) in a VUCA World. That is obviously vital, given the challenges that lie ahead. While it is impossible for leaders to discern exactly what those challenges might entail, they can keep everybody on their toes, and light on their feet.