What does it mean to lead in a world where unpredictability, interdependency, and accelerating change are the norms? How can leaders cultivate the resilience, agility, and grit necessary to succeed, both individually and across their organizations, when hard-and-fast rules fail to apply?
In his recent webinar for Coursera, “Lead Without Limits: Navigating through Uncertainty and Disruption,” Mike Barger, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, addresses these critical questions. Timed to the launch of Coursera’s Leadership Academy, Berger’s talk illuminates how leaders can thrive within environments that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—VUCA, for short.
Winning in a VUCA Environment
The VUCA framework was developed by the U.S. military in the late 1980s to describe a new reality: one shaped by complex, shifting dynamics that defy linear understandings of cause and effect. Drawing on his 13 years of service in the U.S. Navy and his tenure as a founding executive at JetBlue Airways, Barger reveals how lessons from military strategy can be applied to business contexts. In doing so, he empowers leaders to anticipate potential threats, adapt to unexpected events, and manage crises when they arise.
Until recently, business-world orthodoxy has held that leaders should simply avoid crises. Yet as the coronavirus pandemic has shown, mission-critical disruptions can emerge suddenly and intensify at exponential rates. In our present-day VUCA world, Barger argues, crisis is not a matter of “if” but of “when.” Rather than naively assume that adverse scenarios can be prevented, today’s businesses need to accept the inevitability of crisis. By adopting a preparedness mindset, leaders can develop the essential tools, capacities, and processes that enable them to tackle any crisis as it comes.
Three Universal Truths of Crisis Leadership
Bringing together learnings from his professional experience and academic research, Barger identifies three universal truths of crisis leadership:
- In a crisis, people look for tangible evidence of leadership.
- When they look, people want and need leaders to believe in.
- People don’t expect their leaders to be perfect or omniscient.
Rather than obsess over the perfect decision, Barger asserts, leaders must learn to make continuous, incremental choices in the face of inconclusive data. By proving their ability to respond in a composed yet forceful manner to unfolding situations, leaders can build the confidence and trust of the multiple individuals and groups whom their businesses impact.
Pushing against generalizations, Barger encourages leaders to specify the various stakeholders in their businesses, from employees, customers, and the executive team to investors, community members, and the media. Each stakeholder, he explains, needs to be understood holistically and on their own terms. By cultivating a nuanced appreciation of each party’s unique needs, expectations, and value propositions, business leaders can more effectively engage them in moments of crisis, trading a one-size-fits-all plan for a spectrum of targeted approaches.
Key Imperatives for Leaders: Be, Know, Do
To clarify his argument, Barger borrows a second framework from the U.S. military, “Be, Know, Do”:
- Be: Visible, Caring, Empathetic, Calm, and Assertive.
- Know: Vision, Values, Guiding principles.
- Do: Communicate, Make decisions with limited information, Take responsibility, and Engage your stakeholders.
“Be” directs leaders to demonstrate determination and urgency to redress unwanted outcomes while remaining attuned to their stakeholders’ diverse anxieties and concerns. “Know” foregrounds the need for leaders to internalize their organizations’ values. In moments of stress, these values serve as North Stars, offering a robust foundation for making decisions, regardless of the specific nature of the crisis at hand. “Do” prompts leaders to act even as unknowns persist. By claiming responsibility for guiding the organization and all of its stakeholders through challenging periods, higher-ups can lead by example and cement their position as the authoritative source of information in an evolving situation.
Creating an Action Plan
Equipped with these frameworks, what concrete steps can leaders take to ready both themselves and their organizations? Barger encourages them to start with a hypothetical crisis, such as a market shift, data breach, product failure, execution misstep, or leadership change. After defining the threat, leaders can collaborate with their teams to:
- Think through how the scenario will impact each of their stakeholders differently.
- Craft a step-by-step action plan for communicating with and engaging their stakeholders, considering the types, modes, and frequencies of messaging that best align with the expectations, needs, and interests of each individual or group.
- Use this plan to evaluate the organizational roles, responsibilities, and procedures that are currently in place and proactively address gaps within them.
By conducting trial runs, leaders can operationalize the mindsets and processes needed to not simply weather but grow through crises, no matter how unfamiliar or unprecedented.
Dive deeper into these insights by watching the recorded webinar, “Lead without Limits: Navigating through Uncertainty and Disruption.”