Based on my personal observations, conversations with senior managers and the increasing turnover rates for executive level leaders, it is becoming clear that many senior managers today are simply ill-equipped to deal with the challenges they face. Why is this?
As Barret Brown of MetaIntegral Associates notes, “To thrive as an organization in the 21st-century marketplace…requires unprecedented leadership capacity and delivery. Most leaders are in over their heads in the face of today’s challenges, unable to adapt and evolve quickly enough. Many are failing as a result.”
The reason so many executive leaders are “in over their heads” is because the depth of operational complexity, the volatility of markets, and the ambiguous contexts in which typical leaders must make decisions are misaligned with the more static skills and experiences most senior managers have based their careers on. For example, most managers have been taught, either in management school or on the job, to only make material decisions when they have extensive, compelling data to support those decisions. In today’s world, not only is that frequently not possible, but, by definition, if a leader or organization does have extensive data supporting a particular choice, it’s probably too late for that choice to deliver significant results anyway! It’s important to be informed by data when it exists (and big data analytics will make this increasingly possible), but many leaders today are not prepared to embrace risk when necessary. A related problem is what the Harvard Business Review refers to as “surrogation,” which is when leaders and their organizations confuse performance metrics tied to strategy with the strategy itself. As noted in the article, “A company can easily lose sight of its strategy and instead focus strictly on the metrics that are meant to represent it.” Leaders have historically been socialized and rewarded for achieving KPIs more than for achieving the strategic goals related to the metrics, which is proving not only ineffective, but even detrimental in contemporary environments. It is unfortunately true that culture in many organizations does not support the kinds of leadership behaviors that those same organizations need to survive and thrive. This also contributes to management “failures” and turnover.
To the contrary, leaders who are able to bring the most value today are those with intuition, empathy, a high tolerance for ambiguity, confidence to make material decisions in the absence of significant empirical support, and, importantly, can manage multiple, often competing ideas and challenges simultaneously. It is striking that being really good at managing people and change clearly trumps managing a budget in today’s environment! As Brené Brown notes in recent research about contemporary leadership, the most important differentiator may be “courage,” which requires self-reflection and even vulnerability–clearly not markers of “traditional” leadership!
The Pentagon has an acronym to describe this contemporary environment: VUCA. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Interestingly, VUCA does not just apply to a combat or even solely a military environment. The Pentagon uses it to apply to the broader world and it certainly applies to the world that civilian organizations operate in as well. The leadership model they’ve developed for a VUCA world is called the Strategic Leadership Primer.
The good news is that it is possible to build the requisite skills to be an effective leader in a VUCA environment. One approach is found in The Future of Leadership for Conscious Capitalism. It requires a “vertical learning” model and also requires that senior leaders operate with much less dependency on traditional “life jackets” such as fixed budgets, data-driven decision making, multi-year strategic objectives, etc. But for those who can make the leap, not only are they more likely to be successful, they will enjoy the rewards of working effectively in a very dynamic and stimulating environment.