Breaking Beyond the Surface to Become “Worth Following”

There were two young fish swimming together on a beautiful day, when they happened upon an older fish swimming the other direction. The older fish approached the two younger fish with an energetic greeting, “Mornin’ fellas, how’s the water?” The two young fish look at each other, swim a bit further, when eventually one of them looks over at the other and says, “What the heck is water?”

Breaking Beyond the Surace to Become Worth Following - GiANT Worldwide - Leadership blog

Fish don’t always realize they are immersed in water. They are continually surrounded by it and unmindful of its very quality. Like fish, we can also be lulled unconscious by our ever-present surroundings to the point that we don’t even realize that there may be something beyond the surface of our every day realities.

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” 
C.G. Jung

This phenomenon is true when leaders fail to see the context in which they are leading. Without reflection and self-awareness, all of us can become ineffective by applying leadership behaviors and practices that are inappropriate, outdated, or beyond our scope of competency. Proven leadership strategies often reflect those strategies that may have worked then, but may not be impactful within today’s leadership environments.

“Becoming” in a VUCA Reality

The term VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. VUCA originated from the U.S. Army War College and defines the new and inescapable context in which leaders must serve.

The deeper meaning of each element of VUCA and the nuance of challenges for leaders:

V = Volatility

The nature and dynamics of change, the speed of change forces, and change catalysts.

Leader Challenges of Volatility

  • The pace of change is more rapid than the leader’s ability to respond
  • The rapid increase of change requires accelerated decision making skills
  • Changes are trending larger in scale and less in predictably
  • The increase in volatility is leaving more and more leaders overwhelmed, stressed, and ill equipped to lead effectively.

Health Warning – Dominating control structures become less effective in highly volatile and disruptive environments.

U = Uncertainty

The lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issue and events.

Leader Challenges of Uncertainty

  • Difficulty gaining a firm grip on the actual problem
  • The risk of action without sufficient information
  • The attraction to rely on bygone strategies
  • Difficulty in “connecting the dots” to understand all dimensions of the challenge
  • The volume of noise distorting the origin of the issue at hand

C = Complexity

The multiplex of forces, confounding of issues, chaos and the universal confusion that surround organizations.

Leader Challenges of Complexity

  • Challenge to drive change within the blurry web of issues, concerns, and consequences
  • Increased complexity creates difficulty in knowing where to start to drive change
  • The persuasion to act on quick wins and short-term solutions
  • Time for genuine reflection prior to action
  • Problem solving solely to meet the symptoms rather than the root cause of challenges
  • Getting stuck in analysis paralysis and not responding or reacting too late to the challenge

A = Ambiguity

The haziness of realty, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions.

Leader Challenges of Ambiguity

  • Leaders become too far removed from the source and context of events
  • The high risk of misinterpreting events and therefor responding inappropriately and ineffectively
  • Failure to understand the broad underlying significance of each event
  • Acting with limited understanding of all related consequences

Implication for Becoming

It is quite clear we are living in tumultuous times. The tricky fact is that our leadership competence and connectivity cannot viably keep pace with the turbulence. Leaders have a tendency to stay stuck using old practices, tools, and skills in addressing the stampede of adaptive challenges felt by the day. The sobering consequence is failed leadership, disillusioned leaders, frustrated teams and ultimately poor organizational performance.

The calling to Become requires a true understanding of the leadership ecosystem in which we are fully immersed. Leaders have the choice to break through the surface of one’s comfort and familiarity. Like “fish out of water” we must risk vulnerability and chose to explore new leadership habitat where the old patterns of domineering and/or protective tendencies give way to new liberating habits of empowerment and limitless opportunities for others.

Take Home

  1. What are the bygone practices that may have outlived their time yet still actively observed within your leadership space?
  2. How can you start Becoming and leading differently?
  3. What liberating practices have you found successful in creating opportunities and empowering team in times of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity?
  4. What new Liberating Leadership skills will you commit to build in 2015?
  5. How can we help?
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