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Think and Rethink: Sustainable and Resilient Leadership in a VUCA World

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

The deeply engrossed “Thinker” sat on the “Gateway to the other world” contemplating the fate of those who experience the deeply captivating and dynamic VUCA world below. Though the acronym, VUCA- Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous- emerged from the military in the 1990s, the world since its inception of humanity has always been a playfield of chaotic scenarios (Bennis and Nanus, 1985). The extend of globalization and digital revolution has made it obvious for the managers and leaders to hunt for novel ways of leading the society and economy. The ‘Volatility’ and ensuing turbulences have become to constitute the new normal. This has also heightened the need of leadership to mitigate new tumults and adapt to the associated ‘Uncertainty’. The year 2020 has seen a major pandemic outbreak in the World that has led to a global crisis of unprecedented nature. This has forced the leaders of the world to be on permanent alert with ‘Complex’ and ‘Ambiguous’ scenarios never encountered before.

While in such a VUCA world, as we humans coexist, ‘Auguste Rodin’, the creator of ‘The Thinker’ quotes,

“What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils, and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.” (Jacques and Patricia, 1977)

‘The Thinker’ itself is a small element of the bigger work, ‘The Gates of Hell’ which tries to portray Dante Alighieri's epic poem ‘Divine Comedy’. Every work or creation is a big system composed of sub-systems. This idea of systems thinking for strategic decision making transcends disciplines and cultures while spanning the folds of history as well. Systems thinking for critical thoughts and disruptive actions have a human personality evolving from numerous schools of thought as deeply illustrated by Donella Meadows in her book, Thinking in Systems. Every strategic decision is associated with several sub systems and thoughts which are often interrelated and overarching the tides of time.

Thinking in Systems

Humboldt, the first amongst several pioneers of systems thinking had always regarded networking and systemic approach for effective leadership. The feedback loop based systems interact each other in delivering a rational, explicit and transparent decision that will suffice the needs of the stakeholders of an organization. Thus, the leadership will be able to courageously envision thoughts and understand to be agile while making decisions, even if it carries a risk.

Alexander von Humbolt, world renowned German scientist and explorer of the 19th century believed that “ key to understanding nature was interconnectedness.” He noted in his diary: “Alles ist Wechselwirkung,” - “everything is interconnected and interdependent”. (Doherr, 2015)

Donella Meadows is another famous proponent of systems thinking for complex systems while explaining the key elements of resiliency. She has lifelong tried to facilitate discussions and ideas for appreciating the complexity of the interconnected whole.

For making effective decisions and playing a leadership role, Peter Drucker, world renowned management consultant and author had recognized the importance of systematic process and sequential steps with a core element of feedback analysis. This critical evaluation will help in improvising the strategies within the core decision making bodies of any organization. As Peter Drucker once pointed out, there is more competition within the corporations than between them, the systemic analysis within an organizational skeleton will help to rewire and rethink the priorities that need to be set for growth. He also believes on enhancing knowledge so that resilience is introduced in the system. This has deeper roots within an organization and its culture. The human resource is vital for the development of any organization. It is essential to empower them with right kind of skills for changing scenarios to accomplish personal visions as well as support strategic visions of the organization. If an institution slowly declines due to the highly complex VUCA world, the rationality which binds the system will simply help in evolving a highly sustainable and resilient institution.

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” – Peter Drucker

Rethinking for Strategic Growth

The ideas and practices of a particular era transition itself with the passage of time. An evaluation of these ideas and practices in a highly VUCA world often with the worldview and belief systems influence the decisions on our real and perceived needs. The Former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt once said-"People who have visions should go see a doctor". This Schmidtian phrase might have been well valid when people were after the ideologies and not interested in developing tangibles ideas. If and when the word “vision” ceases to exist as hallucinations, then prescriptions from the right kind of ‘doctor’ will be required to transform and guide the visions. Success behind any idea or innovation is clear vision and not illusion. The right kind of leaders whose doctrines are strategic and accompanied by timelines need to be calibrated in due course of time as the needs and values continuously evolve. This calibration helps to maintain cohesion with the growth addressing resource usage, equality, life style patterns, consumption and production as well as social and economic models. It is highly inevitable that we need visionary answers to ensure sustainability in society. For instance, the evolution from assembly line production to 3-D printing has been a result of visionary approach in different eras accompanied by development rooted in solid ideas and research. The strategic visions of each country, organization, family and individual act as drivers for holistic development. These “Visions” act as a bridge between the current state of reality to a futuristic level of development

“Nothing is forever except change.” – Siddhartha Gautama

A visionary leader having right kind of “direction” and “prescription” will always find it easy to align themselves with the shared visions of an organization, can work in a diverse environment and eventually foster commitment. Often, the personal visions evolve into shared visions of the organization and this empowers the strategies of the organization too. The interaction, critical thinking and brainstorming of visions of an individual will inspire and motivate to fulfill the shared visions of a larger group of people. The self-evolved sense of responsibility is critical than the forced level of compliance and commitment. A visionary person will be able to spread ideas and act as an inspiration to the team members. Such people will definitely try to strengthen themselves as well as the team members to mitigate and manage various levels of risk. They will try to prevent any kind of unsustainable behavior in the organization.

Organizational leadership need to enhance the capabilities and skills of the members for embracing diversities and apply new approaches to meet challenges created by emergencies and disasters. Members of resilient-cultured organizations will have visionary staff who will be vigilant about their organization, its performance and potential problems. They will have adequate skills to introduce innovation and creativity. Such empowered employees will be able to mobilize the organization's resources to operate during crises. In addition, they will be able to proactively respond to the early warning signals of changes occurring due to the externalities in the environment prior to their escalation into crisis.

A VUCA world leader must be able to facilitate and accelerate ‘change’ as well as internalize the externalities by creative and critical design changes. The leader must not wait for a decree to be enforced or disaster to be encountered to make strategic changes within the organization. It is critical that we must not lose our ability to think and act critically but adapt and coexist with the changing scenarios while defining a new VUCA world – Vision, Understandability, Care and Courage, Agility. In the current anthropocene, all the individuals have the power to create collective impact as we become more conscious of how we are connected to each other and the planet as a whole.



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