How many times have you heard people say, “Our environment has changed—it’s now more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) today than ever before”?
I hear this a lot in my work, but I’m not 100 percent convinced this is true. Go back just in American history. Did George Washington live in uncertain times? Did Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, or LBJ live in uncertain, complex, volatile, and unpredictable times?
How are we defining what we mean by more, though? I’m not sure it’s more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Instead, I believe it’s the impact of an ever-quickening pace and access to data that is changing the leadership environment: In this age, our world moves much faster and we have significant access to much more data.
With this increase in speed and data, have the leadership skills required to navigate a forward path changed? Some say we must be more agile, anticipatory, and adaptive in our thinking, but is that really different for leaders? The way I see it, that’s always been our call.
Technology and Leadership
My lifelong friend, Joe, owned a Commodore 64 and was a true early adopter of the personal computer. Ponder 1982 (if you can). Though I was not sure this new technology was more than a passing fad then, he was convinced — and correct — that computers would transform the way we lived.
A decade later, cellular phones appeared on the scene, giving us mobility while the internet opened a new world of connectivity and data to all on PCs. Fast forward another decade and digital formatting changed the way we listened to music, watched videos, and took pictures, and in 2004 Facebook mainstreamed social media as the world began to connect as never before and at an even faster pace. In 2007, the iPhone hit the market and smart phones put the world in our hands, and today these tiny computers go everywhere we go.
Think about it. In a short 100 years, technology has changed exponentially, allowing us to be connected to massive amounts of information and data and to each other, everywhere, all the time.
If leadership is about influence, we need to consider the opportunities and challenges of the hyperconnected world we now live in. It’s a complex weave of people, machines, and technology with remarkable reach and magnitude—that’s the change in the leadership environment, and there’s real impact to consider.
FaceTime Versus Face Time
The culture in which we lead has morphed, and with this greater access comes a new set of rules of engagement for leaders who want to have lasting impact.
The need and desire for people to connect has not changed, but we are able, now, to connect to more people faster. And greater reach is good. On the other hand, social media, email, and communication technology have raised person-to-person connections to a previously unimagined high, but there are pitfalls. For example, when leaders opt to let digital communication stand in place of being intentionally physically present with their teams to offer feedback (positive as well as constructive). FaceTime is not a replacement for face time — not over the long haul if we want our teams to reach their potential.
The basic premises of leadership remain intact, regardless of technology. And the best leaders know that support and challenge are critical for growth of those we lead and influence, and they know this is always most effective in person.
Only in person are we able to fully relay what we intend to communicate. The increased speed, connectivity, and data are simply opportunities to enhance our support and challenge, not a substitute for time spent shoulder to shoulder or eye to eye.
The Speed of Leadership Development
The majority of leaders are developed from on-the-job experiences, training, coaching, and mentoring. This takes time. We can, however, leverage the technology and data to enhance, even accelerate leader development. We have always needed agile, anticipatory, and adaptive leaders, so let’s use the speed and strength of this era to accelerate the development of these traits. People are absorbing information at a greater velocity, but our understanding of what it means to be a leader in this new, networked society has not kept pace.
This hyperconnected world brings us three powerful opportunities to enhance leadership development—the nexus leadership and technology offers:
Flexibility of where and how we meet people–or the ability to build relationship and influence without restriction across physical and even temporal space reaching more people more quickly.
Speed in both the physical and cognitive arenas. Physical speed is enhanced by technology along with the cognitive ability to process, absorb information, and develop decisions.
Collaboration while helping a network of leaders solve problems, mentor, and develop with the best and most current thinking available. Collaboration is the new competition, and the more valuable our contributions are, the greater our influence will be.
I think instead of viewing our work world in the negative sense of the VUCA axiom, we need to see the advantages and opportunities — new flexibility, speed and collaboration — that come with greater speed and access to data and connectivity. As leaders, let’s use this era—this revolution to accelerate support and challenge, and influence those we lead while developing agile, anticipatory, and adaptive leaders to meet the challenges of tomorrow.