When we started Collective Leadership Strategies, Inc. everyone on our team knew that we were facing a tall order. Ambiguity exists as far as the eye can see, and for me, the feeling is what I imagine it's like to base jump off a cliff in the fog. You can't see how far down you have to go, what obstacles are in the way, or if the parachute will even open.
How do serial entrepreneurs do this? How can I arm myself with the best tools to navigate the uncertainty of starting a new business?
Business schools have reclaimed a term that was originally coined by the military to refer to the state of constant, unpredictable change that seems to exist in all aspects of our busy lives. VUCA is an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. No I think back to grad school when my classmates would yell out "VUCA" when things got tense.
The reality of leading today is that VUCA exists in almost every aspect of our lives. Two years ago we sent our kids off to spring break knowing that there was a nasty virus taking over healthcare systems, but no one could have imagined that our kids wouldn't come back to school until the following school year, or in some cases even longer. No one could have anticipated that we'd lose more than SIX MILLION lives or experience over 470 million cases worldwide from a single virus over the following two years. On top of that, we have skyrocketing inflation, a global supply chain crisis, and an economic recession that all have unarguably impacted nearly every human on the face of this earth.
I was recently leading a conversation with a cohort of sitting urban school board officers about mindsets, and a question came up about this. "I know that I can lead through uncertainty. It's everyone else that I'm worried about. What are steps that I can take to ensure that my colleagues are acting 'right'?"
This is a question as old as time, and the answer isn't what people want to hear. Sometimes the truth requires swallowing that hard pill, y'all. There is no way to control or manipulate others into acting with integrity. Leaders can only control their actions, and the way I coach my clients through this is by encouraging them to be present in the moment and mindful of the ways their actions reflect their beliefs and values.
The example of the "lone nut" or "dancing guy" has been around for a long time. He remains relevant because the example is a good one. This is an example of modeling, or what in our world we call parallel processing. For those of us specifically in leadership positions, we give unspoken permission to others to act in a certain way through our own actions. When I am conducting training online I dress professionally, keep my camera on, and am mindful about how I present on the camera because my participants will both unconsciously and explicitly look to me for cues on unspoken norms. This is true in both the positive and the negative. My actions give others permission to follow my lead whether they are good, bad, or neutral.
I know that the word integrity starts with the letter "I", and it's also important to recognize that executing the meaning does as well. There are agreements connected to almost every task I perform, either unspoken or explicitly stated. It is definitely easier for me to make excuses and pass the blame on to others. At the end of the day, excuses don't matter when I fail to do the things that I say I will do. To be clear, this is not a moral dilemma about right or wrong, this is a simple discussion about how my behavior allows me to access or not access my goals (Crabill, 2017).
Example: I tell my daughter that I will take her to music lessons. Last-minute I learn that my car has broken down. Although I have a very good excuse for not being able to take her to music lessons, my goal was to take her to music lessons and now she’s stuck at home. A lack of integrity plus a very good excuse does not achieve my goal (Crabill, 2017). My daughter's goal is to be better at playing music.
There are alternative things I can do, but none of those are going to be as good as what I originally told her. Maybe my neighbor is home so I ask her to take my daughter for me. That is still a last-minute change in our plans, and my daughter might not have as easy of a time practicing because of that. We could walk, but now she's late and frazzled. She could tune in for a zoom lesson, but the quality of instruction that she receives is going to be worse because of the virtual platform. My behavior is lacking integrity - even with a really good excuse and an alternate solution, this still does not lead to me achieving my original goal (Crabill, 2017).
These are not situations that should be judged as right or wrong. Being present simply means that I am conscious of my actions and how they impact my sphere of influence. When I am more present to my pattern of behaviors then I am more likely to make progress toward my goals. When I am less present to my pattern of behaviors then I am less likely to make progress toward my goals (Crabill, 2017). When I am more mindful of my pattern of behaviors then I am making myself more agile in navigating the VUCA around me. When I am more aware of my pattern of behaviors then I am hopefully influencing the people around me, both up and down the corporate ladder, to also be present to their pattern of behaviors.
Crabill, AJ. "Student Outcomes Focused Governance" (2017): Council of the Great City Schools Workshop Lecture. 3-4 March 2022