Are you Leading for a VUCA world?

At the time of writing, I’m (Katherine) spending some time in Ireland, working and holidaying. Ireland has handled the Covid crisis relatively well, with the Government receiving plaudits for its swift and decisive action and clarity of its communication through the first four months of the crisis. At the end of June, however, there was a change in government, and with it a change in leadership approach and style – and this new approach has come in for plenty of criticism in recent weeks.

Like most of Europe, Covid cases are on the rise in Ireland, albeit at a slower rate than in some other countries. It’s led to localised lockdowns, and, last week, a blanket change in nationwide restrictions. The changes, the lack of clarity with which they were communicated, and a separate incident in which several senior government figures attended a crowded social gathering (dubbed “GolfGate” by the press) has led to public outcry and the erosion of trust in the government.

 

At the heart of this, apparently, is a shift in leadership approach. Leo Varadkar, the outgoing Taoiseach (or prime minster) who handled the crisis in the early stages, has now become Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) in the new coalition government, and last week was quoted as saying in a cabinet meeting “if we keep doing business like this, we won’t be in business for long”. His outburst was prompted by a full cabinet meeting that made important decisions about changes to Covid regulations – a process that he felt was leading to hasty, ill informed, and potentially unclear decisions that were subsequently poorly communicated to the public. His point was that while full cabinet meetings might be entirely appropriate for ‘normal’ times where there is the luxury of time, greater certainty and more data availability, it is not the way to lead and make decisions in a VUCA time.

 

His opinion was that a knowledgeable and expert subcommittee should be mandated to thrash out the details and present possible solutions to the government (full cabinet if necessary). And looking at how other governments – and organisations – who have successfully navigated through the last six months, they’ve mostly taken that approach. Leading through VUCA times cannot be done by a solo, heroic leader, nor can it be done by a large ill-informed committee who will each have their own perspective and opinion based on an incomplete set of facts (at a time when ‘fact’ is thin on the ground anyway).

 

Leading in the new worlds we inhabit requires considered decision making, drawing from the available expertise in a structured and logical way, and at times allowing solutions to emerge. And the best way to do this is to mandate a small group of well-informed leaders who have had the opportunity and time to immerse themselves in the available information and collaborate with experts to present options and even make decisions. Leaders who are comfortable in dealing with complexity and holding polarities and different choices; who understand the need to collaborate widely, learn as they go and know that they can only make ‘best’, not ‘right decisions; and leaders who know that we’re in extraordinary times and are working hard to continually balance the competing short term needs of their people, their organisation, and their stakeholders while scanning the horizon and getting ready for the future. It’s a tough job.

 

How are you leading? How is your business being led? Because if you’re still attached to the heroic leader, or leading by full committee model, it might be time to consider how well that’s working for you.

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