The leader finally reaches the summit of the hill. All their years of business experience, all that time on management and leadership development has finally got them there. Now they’re on the hilltop, the leader is expected to have the vision, the oversight, to be a military general commanding the high ground, to drive the organisation forward
to one success after another.
Unfortunately, the view isn’t going to be what they expect, no matter how high the leader climbs. In the 21st - century, all they’re going to see is a mess, or what’s known as a ‘VUCA world’ - referring to an environment filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. It’s an acronym that came from the US military, used by perplexed leaders in response to the relentless challenges posed by operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, but embraced by management thinkers as a reflection of the extremity of the changes being faced.
"For a new leader the hill can look like a cliff, they haven’t had the chance to turn themselves into leaders."
All their working life so far has been about gaining more control of business processes, through broader knowledge, deeper insights. Suddenly the leader becomes responsible for the intangible, the woolly vision and values, the responsibility for moving forward into a void.
"It's no longer possible to just develop yourself into a great leader."
Too many leadership development programmes offer a ‘happy ever after’ outcome from learning general principles and nurturing particular qualities. Trying to be a traditional great leader is going to lead to failure eventually, there are too many threats to businesses of all shapes and sizes, that will come together and too quickly to be avoided. There aren’t always going to be clear answers, let alone good answers to VUCA problems.
So we need new kinds of leaders. They need to be flexible and resilient - as they have always needed to be - but to an even greater extent. They need to avoid the traps of demanding only success in everything, of relentless positivity; to be more accepting of negative events and critical perspectives, not seeing them as something to be hidden away from view but as part of the organisation’s journey.