Undulating VUCA

Reading Jennifer G. Berger and Keith Johnston’s Simple Habits for Complex Times brought back bad memories and good ones as well. Bad because of the avoidable mistakes and anxieties in leadership I had made years ago when I managed a university campus bookstore; good because of the lessons learned.

At the height of my career I was on top of the campus retailing world. I was innovative, charismatic and confident about my profession. I was respected among my colleagues, traveled to take part in industry conferences and made real contributions to constituents. They even elected me to serve on boards and eventually ascended to the position of president of our state association. I enjoyed recognition and influence, which in the end, and in retrospect amounted to nothing more than an illusion.1

Prior to the internet boom and before e-commerce was even a word, college bookstores were prominently part of the university landscape and ethos. Not only was it the only place to purchase textbooks and myriad of university logo tchotchkes, it provided a whole lot of intangibles as well, i.e., school spirit, social connections, etc.

In 1994 Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com. As the popular aphorism goes, the rest is history. The writing was on the wall. At that point it was only a matter of time before the publishers, along with the bookstore industry would struggle to reinvent itself. It was a tumultuous period to say the least. Many bookstores could not compete and had to close. Some got leased to larger conglomerates that provided the market share and margins just to survive, much less thrive.

In the midst of all of this, the bookstore I was managing employed best practices, lowered prices to remain competitive while providing great service and selections. Despite our best efforts, leadership decided to lease our college store to a third party vendor. I was crushed. Looking back I’m convinced we did not have all the data to make a wise decision. The only thing that ran through my mind was “who is to blame.” I did not know it then, but my mind set as a leader was naive and immature, arrogantly thinking I had it together. Berger identifies this form of mind as “self-sovereign.”

The world is a volatile place and this is out of our control— nothing can be done. Ambiguity is the fault of the leaders, who should have the power or the good sense to make things clear. Complexity is mostly unseen. When people talk about interconnections or shades of gray, the self-sovereign mind may well reject those ideas as absurd (or intentionally misleading) ways to somehow make the situation come out to that person’s advantage.2

In an ironic, undoubtedly, providential turn of events, my bosses thought it was good to put me in a cohort-based leadership program at the university. Everyone in the group knew what was going on with the bookstore, and it was one of those elephant in the room type of thing no one dared bring up. I had mixed feelings but felt affirmed because my leaders remained confident in my abilities. One of the most important things I gleaned from being part of the leadership cohort was the importance of diagnosis. This is akin to Berger’s idea of asking different questions; not the kind people ask in the hopes of funneling the other person to the preferred answer. Highlighting the importance of diagnosis, Ronald Heifetz in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership says that “The singly most important skill and most undervalued capacity of exercising adaptive leadership is diagnosis.”3 As leaders we are prone to action, but experts are saying we must stop and see the bigger picture first.

As I mentioned in the beginning, there were good memories as well. Good, not in the sense that I enjoyed the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA).4 Not at all, however, what I did take away from the experience was the importance of looking for the learning moments.5 That is what kept me sane. I considered that time of my life a “wilderness” period, uncertain of the future, where rational things seemed no longer to make sense. Was the transition into leasing smooth? Was it even the right decision? If there is another important lesson learned, it is the fact that these are not the right questions to ask in a complex system.

Leadership Lessons from George Washington and Jesus

This hit close to home. The study of leadership, leaders and what makes them tick has fascinated me for a number of years. I mean, who doesn’t t get excited to hear the latest developments from Apple each time Steve Jobs was on stage and utter his famous words, “… there’s one more thing.” Or learning about Elon Musk’s empire of mass producing electric cars and developing a space program rivaling NASA. These two leaders are models of what popular leadership theories might label as successes. 

However, amidst the celebrity status, rock-star personas these kinds of leaders evoke, it is important to be wary of how easy and tempting it is to succumb to failure. This is evidenced in the 2008 global economic collapse in which highly paid CEOs of financial institutions stood at the helm. The Great Recession brought calamity to so many. Men and women who worked hard to save for retirement saw their future disappear overnight. Home owners who should not have qualified for loans foreclosed at alarming rates, causing a ripple effect on the larger national and global economy. It is staggering to think all this happened under the watchful eye of these Ivy League educated men and women. What happened? Was their exclusive, high-priced education deficient? Was ethics not a required course for accountancy majors? Perhaps, but something else might be the cause.

Dennis Tourish in The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective is helpful and makes a startling claim to help students of leadership understand some of its pitfalls. This is a much needed reminder, especially for me as I tend to practice leadership with an exclusive focus on practical results. Tourish points out that even well-meaning leaders fall prey to internal systems which creates an environment of temptation to manipulate company results and incentivizes unwise risk-taking behavior. Experts have argued that this kind of agency “undermines teamwork, encourages a short-term focus and leads people to believe that pay is not related to performance at all but to having the right relationship and an ingratiating personality.”1

Apparently no system of leadership (Authentic Leadership, Servant-Leadership, etc.) is immune from this excess because, according to Tourish, the pull toward “Superman” (ala G.E.’s Jack Welch) stye of leadership is too great to resist. If the leadership style of the Welchs, Jobs and Musks of the world are to be viewed with reservation, who can we look to for a better model worthy of emulation? What qualities in a leader are required when institutional needs and objectives constantly change? There are two individuals that come to mind. 

The first is George Washington. According to Sam Walker, author of The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership,2 Washington felt responsible and connected with his troops in victory and in defeat. For example, after liberating Boston in 1776 he was reported to have humbly stayed back, sending instead his generals into the jubilant city. In that same battle, and soon after, the British returned with more men and succeeded in flanking the American position. But not before Washington led the evacuation, stayed all night until the last boat departed, saving 9,000 troops. Washington was known for persuading and encouraging his men in battle and appealing to their highest honor.

The second is obvious, our Lord Jesus. He is God Almighty and yet humbled himself to rescue sinful people. He destroyed current models and theories of leadership by setting an example of humility.3 Jesus never considered it below his dignity to stoop down to wash other people’s feet. He was present with Martha, Lazarus’ sister, deeply moved to tears upon learning of his death. When Jesus put together his team he chose individuals who already had things in common: fishermen, brothers, etc. This signifies a proactive approach to a relational component of leadership lacking today. 

Instead of the traditional view of leadership where a sole agent is responsible for an organization with its attending challenges, Tourish refreshingly offers a better one. In the end he says:

“I advocate a nuanced view of leadership, in which leader agency is acknowledged to exist but in which it is balanced by a view which takes fuller account of the agency of other organizational actors and the degree to which this agency is complicit in the construction of leader agency and action.”4

Based on this assessment, it is not surprising Jesus and Washington are considered to be great leaders because they included others in the process and shared victories as well as defeats. We ought to study them carefully to glean leadership principles to bring organizational vision to reality in a confused world seeking direction. 

Humble Leadership

Scripture tells us in Romans 12: 3 to “…not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” This is not to say that we ought not to think of ourselves as anything at all. Good meaning people misunderstand the meaning of humility. Many think, especially secular folks, that humility means being a doormat, to be submissive in the sense that they allow others to dominate them. Our Lord was humble in birth, in his earthly ministry and in his death. Jesus says in John 10 that he “lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Humility is active, not passive.

When we think of a leader, we think of the CEO-type of a large corporation, charismatic, flamboyant, a person with a commanding presence. Our culture and media props up men such as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or women like Meg Whitman and Marissa Mayer and say that these are the quintessential leaders to emulate because of their successes in business. This may be so, but it’s interesting that none of those names even come up in academic leadership research. What might be missing from their skill set? Do they have what leadership researcher J Richard Hackman calls the “It” factor or not?1 Are leaders more or less born with leadership traits or is it something according to Jennifer A. Chatman and Jessica A. Kennedy are skills that are “inherently developmental?2

Whatever counts as good leadership, there appears to be convincing studies that have surprised experts and dismantled our assumptions. That is, whereas we thought great leaders were dynamic presenters, clever financiers or luminaries in their fields, etc. It turns out one of the most significant predictor of a great leader is humility3. Jim Collins who has studied and taught leadership for decades at the highest levels calls this “Level 5 Leadership” and is well documented in his book Good to Great. Here he says:

“We were surprised, shocked really, to discover the type of leadership required for turning a good company into a great one. Compared to high-profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities , the good-to-great leaders seem to have come from Mars. Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy—these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar.”4

Years later, still convinced about this “shocking” discovery he adds in a recent Harvard Business Review article that “the essential ingredient for taking a company to greatness is having a “Level 5” leader, an executive in whom extreme personal humility blends paradoxically with intense professional will.”5

This is rather significant and demands our attention because this time he adds the intensifying adjective “extreme” to humility this time. This study affirms what Christians have known for ages. We have to lead like Jesus led if we are to expect lasting impact. I for one am convinced that this is the only effective way to go as we lead our churches, non-profit organizations, corporations, etc. But the bigger question is, will we be the kind of leaders who, by God’s grace, seek to be humble?