Finding Your Leadership Fit in a VUCA World

Years ago, I was working in a small ad-hoc group of peers on a project. We were tasked with collaborating to brainstorm ideas and present them to an approval authority. Gathering in a small windowless room for our first session, things quickly got painful. We were floundering, paralyzed by a lack of direction and process! There was uncertainty and ambiguity around who was in charge as we attempted to tackle a complex problem. Then, I mistakenly added volatility to the already fragile situation by attempting to lead the group. Understand, I was mostly a “heroic style” leader at the time, and having successfully led teams my whole life, felt it was my duty to sweep in and save this gaggle from itself!

The challenge was…this was predominantly a group of women, of various ethnicities and backgrounds very different from my own, and more importantly, many of whom were far more competent than me on the topic. Within minutes of my attempt to “provide leadership,” it dawned on me—this group is not interested in me leading it! More notably, I was not the right person to lead this group to begin with. To be absolutely clear. That’s not to say that a white man can’t or shouldn’t lead diverse groups of women, (or vice versa)! Only that, there were several others who were more qualified and passionate about the topic. Others who had invested in key relationships and who had far greater influence based on this group’s dynamics. In stepping aside and becoming a role player, I became more effective, and helped the group to be more effective as it eventually sorted out how we would work together.

This experience was insightful and liberating. We are taught that leadership is good…We should be doing more of it! Yet, not every situation is a good fit for you to lead. There are situations where you are uniquely more qualified to lead more so than others. Key to your success, especially in a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and Complexity (VUCA), is to identify your leadership skills which align with your environment. So, how does one understand where they could, and should provide leadership in the world?

In my previous articles on the VUCA Proof© leader, I offered that leaders exist to extinguish the status quo, envision a superior outcome, and align actions towards producing new results. To be effective towards this purpose in a VUCA world, leaders must overcome their learned tendency to display heroic leadership, and instead focus on being more passionatebold, and mindful. Once you’ve built a strong foundation in these behaviors at the individual level, you can apply them at the team and organizational level. That’s because these behaviors intersect with one another to form three critical practices for effective leadership in a VUCA environment: Alignment, Activation, and Attunement.

Thus, critical to understanding your leadership fitis being more mindful and passionate as a leader. Yet, being different is pointless if we don’t do things differently as well. We must merry up our thoughts and our actions. Specifically, there are three key activities you can do to practice Aligned leadership.

The process of alignment starts with assessing the environment around you for real and perceived gaps in performance/results. This will require you to pick your head up from the day-to-day grind and do some strategic reflection. What problems gain and hold your attention? Our VUCA world changes often, where can you anticipate future challenges? Where does change need to happen? Just brainstorm at this point and get all your ideas out on the table.

Next, determine where you are the best fit to provide leadership. Narrow down your potential ideas to those that really fire you up. When things get tough, and they always do in our VUCA world, where will you be a source of boundless energy for others to feed off of? Now, why are you the right person to be of service to others? Passion alone is not enough; what skills, experience, and insight do you bring to the table? Competency is the price of admission to be a leader. How will you prove you are worthy to lead and why should followers trust you?

Finally, it’s time to take action and take a stand in the world. Getting noticed in a VUCA world can be difficult and you need to find a way to rise above the noise/distractions. Yet, as Loa Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” You need to attract a small core following and then build momentum. Perhaps you start by making a formal request to a Sr. Manager (a potential ally) to take on a new initiative for your organization. Or maybe, you volunteer to take on a more active role in your community. Whatever you goal, you need to secure a credible platform from which to exude influence.

Assessing, Fitting, and Committing are the activities that ensure we are practicing Aligned leadership. In my next few articles, I will address how we can practice both Activated and Attuned leadership as well, all of which are essential to moving away from a heroic leadership style, and towards a more effective VUCA Proof© style.

Would you like to learn more? You can download my whitepaper here. Interested in training your executive team to adopt a more VUCA Proof© leadership style? Download the VUCA Proof© 1-day Executive Workshop Brochure here.

Example_15.png(David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces. Get a copy of his new book, “Growing Leaders: 20 Articles to Challenge, Inspire, and Amplify Your Leadership” by clicking here.

*All Rights Reserved. Reproduction, publication, and all other use of any and all this content is prohibited without the authorized consent of the author.

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The Key to Your Future Leadership

Hand the Keys

“Do you know anything about starting a vehicle?” An older women’s voice called out from across the post office parking lot. “Uhhhhmmm yes, a little” I replied, not wanting to admit that I am not the most mechanically gifted individual.

As I walked over to the women’s vehicle to help, I witnessed a parade of older gentlemen standing around with puzzled looks on their faces. “What seems to be the problem?” I asked….”Is it turning over?” “It just won’t start” said a man sitting in the driver’s seat. We’ve tried everything!” “It’s a rental” cried another man, followed by “it’s these keys…they don’t work!”

He then handed me his set of “car keys” that were admittedly unlike most car keys I am familiar with. They were the newer kind, no metal key to be found, just a plastic mechanism that is inserted where a traditional key might fit.  I placed the key fob into it’s not so obvious receptor and turned the ignition. Walla! The engine came roaring to life to the amazement of the senior crowd huddled around me. “Thank you!” cried the woman. “You have no idea how long we have been stranded here!” Feeling somewhat like a hero, I responded with “No problem at all; have a wonderful day” and then walked back to my vehicle.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, it dawned on me. Oh No! That’s going to be me one day! There will come a time when the world around me has changed to such an extent, that I no longer will be able to identify what I don’t know. Sure, I have my current blind spots, yet I do a decent enough job of actively seeking them out and recognizing where I am consciously incompetent. This is different though. Like the elderly people who couldn’t see the car “key” in their hands (no matter how they tried), there will come a day where I will have done things a certain way for so long, that my realm of possibilities will be limited. This will hamper my problem solving abilities, and thus, likely inhibit my ability to lead a team, much less an organization.

This same dynamic is unfolding everyday throughout businesses globally. The speed of change is so rapid that product/service relevance is often fleeting and any chance of sustained market domination is mostly a pipe dream. In fact, “Comparing the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 to the Fortune 500 in 2014, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists. In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 59 years later in 2014, and almost 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged, or still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues).”¹ Why has there been such turnover? While there are many factors that led to each of these company’s demise, I believe there is likely one overarching theme among them all…insufficient innovation stemming from poor succession planning and training.

Innovation is often a young man’s game — the result of abundant energy, a fresh set of eyes, and driving ambition. Thus, if organizations desire greater innovation, it makes sense they would purposefully empower the next generation of leaders. Unfortunately, many organizational bureaucracies make it hard for bright young minds to wield any real power. While it is the Millennial who is likely more in touch with the current technology and latest trends, it is still the Boomer or Gen X’er who is making the strategic decisions. Moreover, it’s my experience that companies invest very little (comparatively) in the next generation of leaders versus focusing on the development of the current crop of executives. Many HR Departments balk at the idea of training an entire front line management team in leadership fundamentals, and instead see greater value in focusing those resources on services like senior executive coaching. As a result, it’s the ambitious Millennial manager (now averaging 4 or more direct reports²) who finds herself struggling to lead effectively. With upwards of 75% of the workforce projected to be Millennials by 2030, here are a few ways you can prepare your organization now for the inevitable transition of leadership ahead.

1. Train Managers to be Leaders Early in their Career – Most companies consider leadership fundamentals to either be “a given” or something to be learned on the job over time. Yet, I’ve been privy to work with some outstanding companies that saw the value in training their frontline managers with robust leadership development programs and have witnessed the results of doing so firsthand. It’s about identity. Formal title or position may give someone authority to manage, but learning to lead is a different set of skills. A well designed program (that’s aligned with the organization’s culture) gives the new manager license to try out new behaviors that inspire. Then, by the time they are in a middle management role, they are well practiced at creating an engaged team and they can focus on more complex skill-sets like cross-functional networking and influencing without authority.

2. Coach to the Middle – Why wait until someone is an “executive” to enroll them in executive coaching? I understand there are often budget constraints and most companies don’t have the resources to provide everyone with coaching, yet my experience is that even middle managers identified as “high potentials” are rarely given the opportunity to work with an executive coach. This is puzzling because one-to-one leadership coaching is the single greatest way to increase a person’s leadership capacity. In addition, a 2011 “global survey of coaching clients by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Association Resource Center concluded that the mean ROI for companies investing in coaching was 7 times the initial investment, with over a quarter reporting an ROI of 10 to 49 times.”³ Setting aside coaching dollars for the next generation of executives just makes sense (plus there are plenty of talented executive coaches willing to work for less than “executive” fees)

3. Create a Culture of Coaching – Speaking of coaching…External executive coaches can do wonderful things for your organization, but training your management team to be great internal coaches is even better. When senior leaders have deep industry experience, an existing positive relationship, and sound coaching skills — young leaders flourish in their development. Yet, many Boomers and Gen X’rs grew up at a time when the skills of professional coaching were still being identified and developed. They may understand giving feedback, performance counseling and mentorship. Yet, the competencies of deep listening vs. offering advice, asking powerful questions that encourage new perspectives, and promoting action and accountability are often foreign to them. All is not lost though. With just a few training workshops and some practice, most senior leaders pick up on these skill-sets quickly.

8 Beliefs That Increase Your Leadership Potential (Part 2)

8 Beliefs That Increase Your Leadership Potential (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, we explored how our values, beliefs, and personal stories drive our behavior through the road trip story. After running out of gas, each team member played a pivotal role in getting them back on the road. The story demonstrated how certain beliefs open up possibilities, ensure priorities are maintained, and invite greatness.

The next four beliefs presented should further enhance your leadership potential. As you read through them, I offer that you check in with yourself and ask if they are congruent with your own system of beliefs. If you assess these beliefs as your own, to what extent are you living them in your day-to-day actions?

1. With issues of integrity, there is a clear right and wrong path – A leader’s reputation is intimately linked with his or her decision-making ability. Yet, in our often fast-paced and volatile world, making good decisions has become more complex. As a result, today’s leaders are becoming more comfortable with making decisions in “gray areas,” where there is no clear right answer. However, when it comes to issues of integrity, there are no “gray areas,” there is simply right and wrong. The basics of integrity may seem overly fundamental…of course leaders shouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal! Yet, if you inventory the greatest leadership failures in recent memory, they almost always are a failure of character. In the U.S. alone, we can look at Bernie Madoff, Bill Clinton, Mark Hurd, or Joe Paterno as prime examples. All were clearly competent in their leadership positions and very successful before they started to make small choices that ultimately led them down a dangerous path of self-delusion. As William James once said, “It’s the small choices that bear us irresistibly towards our destiny.” Leaders know their values, exercise self-control, and choose the harder right—every time, all the time.

2. A leader’s primary role is to manage culture – When you think of a great leader, what comes to mind? For many, this question conjures up images of the visionary who sees what we cannot, and then sets the strategy to get there. For others, they respect the tactical genius who gets things done where others cannot, the one who enables flawless execution and delivers results. Yet, the best leaders believe their most important role is not to set the strategy or even sustain execution, but to manage the organization’s culture. Why? Strategy can shift with the wind. Execution, while undoubtedly important, is likely already the primary focus of the entire management team. Yet, who is looking after the culture? Whose job is it to communicate the values? Who will teach us the rituals, share stories and legends, hold ceremonies, and shape our daily operating assumptions? All of which will determine how well we execute on our strategy! Who will answer this call? Leaders will.

3. Sometimes great leadership is being a good follower – Those who are in positions of organizational authority are also the ones we expect to most often exercise leadership. Thus, one of the most difficult things for a manager to do is to simply get out of the way. Just because one may have power, title, or positional authority does not mean they are the most qualified to lead every time. Perhaps there are team members with expert knowledge or experiences which make them better suited to determine a path or outcome. Or maybe, there are team members that need to grow, and the manager’s leadership is stifling that growth. For example, when I’m training a large group of equally amazing leaders in a workshop and they embark on a team challenge together, not everyone can be a leader. In these scenarios, great leadership is often recognizing when one is hindering the process rather than adding value to it. I find it inspiring to watch an often dominant and influential leader recognize this truth, and then step aside to make space for others. For an experienced manager, it may not be easy to let others take the lead. Yet, ironically, it can also be masterful leadership.

4. 80% of success is simply showing up – You’ve probably heard it before as this is a staple comment of most sales training programs. Yet, when it comes to leadership, your presence cannot be underestimated. Like the back of a raffle ticket, you must be present to win! Your physical presence as a leader is a service to those you lead as it enables accessibility and facilitates critical communication. More importantly, how you spend your time is the single greatest indicator of what is important to you. If you are constantly buried in the office because those emails must be answered, you are telling followers that is what you most care about. You are communicating, my needs come first. Yet, every time you make a consistent effort to check in with your people, ask what their challenges are, what resources they need, and how you may be of service, you are demonstrating a commitment to putting your follower’s needs first. People understand that managers get really busy, and that’s exactly why making a deliberate effort to create a more human connection with your presence will inspire greater loyalty and motivation.

Hopefully, these beliefs personally resonate with you and your leadership experiences. If so, you are likely already fulfilling much of your leadership potential. If not, remember that our beliefs, values, and personal stories are not fixed, we can change them. While not a simple undertaking, it is always a worthwhile endeavor to strive for greater leadership capacity. The world needs your leadership. Choose to reach your full potential.

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