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.