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VUCA Is Today’s Reality: Finding Your Way With Compassion

There’s no doubt about it, today’s world is VUCA — Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The COVID pandemic coupled with traumatic events of 2020 have changed the way we experience the world. This VUCA world challenges us to find our way without having clear roadmaps to guide us through life’s uncertainties. Could compassionate leadership be the way forward?

The Impacts of VUCA Times

Today’s leaders face unprecedented challenges at work compared to generations prior, challenges that include losing good employees to what we now call the ‘Great Resignation,’ navigating hybrid work teams, confronting diversity and equity issues in hiring practices, leading in polarizing cultures, and making mental health a workplace priority.

In a recent article, BambooHR examined how expectations around work and unemployment have shifted. In their research of more than 2,000 U.S. adults they found that the Great Resignation is not over. Many American workers are considering quitting because they’re dissatisfied. In fact, 29% of Americans don’t feel like work is worth it anymore. In addition, one third (34%) of Americans say their current or most recent employer has cared less about them as an employee in the last two years. And a quarter (28%) of Americans say that in the last two years, they’ve cared less about their employer.

You’re probably wondering what all this means and what it has to do with you and your organization. Unfortunately, you and your organization are not exempt from the impact of these staggering circumstances. These are global problems that affect us all. Thus, knowing the impacts of VUCA may help.

What Does VUCA Mean?

VUCA is a concept that was first introduced in 1987 by the U.S. Army War College. An acronym that represents the challenges that organizations face in the ever-changing business landscape, VUCA is a model designed to help senior military leaders better adapt to world challenges. The VUCA model has evolved beyond military roles and institutions and is applicable to any organization.

An alternative to VUCA is RUPT, an acronym suggested by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) which stands for Rapid, Unpredictable, Paradoxical and Tangled. The CCL suggests three approaches to help leaders more effectively navigate disRUPTtion at work.

Whichever acronym you choose to apply, one thing is clear: Leaders need language, direction, tools and real solutions during times of change to be effective change agents.

Why a Focus on Compassion?

One tool that benefits organizations during times of change and uncertainty is compassionate leadership. I like to use the formula:  Empathy + Action = Compassion to define compassion. Compassionate leaders exhibit openness to change, adaptability, transparency, resilience and creativity — key attributes for successfully leading change in a hectic world.

Now more than ever, the ambiguity of work-life alignment requires leaders to practice empathy and compassion towards others as well as themselves. In a recent LinkedIn post, Dr. Daniel Goleman shared, “Climate change. War. Oppression. Global pandemic. Beyond their obvious effects, these situations have taken a brutal toll on well-being. For the younger generation, the impact is particularly stark. A recent survey reported that 52% of young adults are experiencing feelings of depression or hopelessness.”

Research on the advantages of being a compassionate leader has shown that the health of an organization improves and employees feel more supported and valued when managers are empathic and show they care. For younger generations of employees, this is so critical.  

Leading with C.A.G.E.

To lead effectively in a VUCA world, leaders need a powerful strategy. C.A.G.E. is an acronym that I believe best describes how leaders should be showing up to inspire real change. Leading with C.A.G.E. means leading with:

(C) compassion: According to an article by Leaderonomics, compassionate leadership is an essential ingredient in the VUCA world and consists of a leader who is empathic, caring and takes action. These are all necessary qualities during periods of organizational change. Compassion is also about giving ourselves a break from harshness and self-criticism, realizing that we are not perfect.

(A) agility: In VUCA times leaders must be agile as they face the uncertainty and volatility of today’s workplace. Being agile is more than demonstrating flexibility. It’s about self-leadership. How agile are you?

According to the Agile Business Consortium, communication, commitment and collaboration are the three C’s of Agile Leadership. Within these guideposts are nine principles that help inform leaders how to practice agility. Of the nine principles of agile leadership, a fan favorite is Principle #1: Actions speak louder than words. As Jim Ruprecht describes in his article VUCA & Agile Leadership: Part I, “Agile is not something you do; it is something you are. Agile is not a program that you implement; it is a set of principles and values that you inculcate and actualize.” So, are you leading by example?

(G) grit: Leaders who thrive despite the odds of VUCA are gritty. Having grit means you don’t give up on the process or on yourself. Grit is the emotional, physical and mental resilience to persevere in the face of adversity and uncertainty. I think Angela Duckworth’s definition of grit provides an excellent description. In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she writes “to be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times and rise eight.” How much grit do you exhibit during tough times?

(E)emotional intelligence: Emotional intelligence or EI is like the secret sauce in a leadership power bowl. It takes a lot of skill, patience and emotional regulation to display self-awareness, self-management, social recognition and relationship management skills during turbulent organizational change while supporting the needs of others. Leaders with high EQ and IQ are the total package. The ingredients that make up the four self-management competencies of EI are even more powerful when using a C.A.G.E. strategy to lead people.

According to Goleman, an emotionally intelligent organization is prepared to help employees at all levels with the support they need, when they need it. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon leaders, no matter their level, to build emotionally intelligent workplaces to diminish the negative effects of VUCA environments.  

During times of strife, it helps to remember that we are all doing our best! To discern a way forward, leaders at all levels must understand VUCA, and be ready to employ a strategy that works.

Shakima Tozay is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and subject matter expert (SME) on counseling and advocacy programs in her current role. Her government career spans 15 years, starting in the Navy. Kima completed her Masters in Social Work degree from the University of Washington and has held positions with the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) and the ArmyKima is passionate about Diversity and Inclusion workplace issues. She earned a certificate from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business in Leveraging Diversity and Inclusion for Organizational Success. She also holds certifications in Executive Leadership and Women in Leadership Programs. You can connect with Kima on LinkedIn.

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