Over the last five decades, the military has created systems and processes to maintain clarity and agility amid a world that’s become increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, or VUCA. By prioritizing clarity over certainty, and utilizing flexive command, which shifts decision-making authority based on changing circumstances, these processes can help all kinds of organizations adapt to the VUCA world.
Today, says best-selling author of The New Leadership Literacies, Bob Johansen, businesses and government organizations should take a cue from the military. With globalization, unstable political situations, wealth inequality, rapidly advancing technology, and climate disruption, organizations are facing increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous conditions. And the world ain’t getting any less VUCA. It’s time for organizations to adapt.
Johansen has consulted with and spoken to countless organizations around the world, including P&G, Walmart, McKinsey, United Rentals, and Syngenta, as well as major universities, nonprofits, and churches, helping them envision the future and adapt their leadership for the challenges to come. But the noted futurist and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future isn’t likely to face a tougher—or more rewarding—audience than the room full of future generals at the U.S. Army War College (AWC) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who had recently finished reading his latest book, The New Leadership Literacies.
Johansen first volunteered his time at the AWC back in 2001, just a week before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Earlier this year, his book was selected as a featured title in the Commandant's Book Program. He was invited to take part in a Q&A session with future generals in a private event held in the commandant's living room this past March. After a light meal, Johansen and Commandant John Kem sat on opposite sides of a crackling fireplace to discuss the concepts in the book. Johansen admiringly compared the process to “being grilled.”
“The students who volunteer for this read the book extremely carefully,” Johansen says. “It’s a great experience. I found it a great honor.”
The discussion centered on a future of what Johansen calls in his book “distributed everything.” In The New Leadership Literacies, Johansen explains that the shift from centralized to distributed has already begun. In a world of distributed everything, organizations “have no center, grow from the edges, and cannot be controlled.” What will that look like? A “cloudburst of disruption” and leadership hierarchies that resemble “a swirl,” Johansen writes. However, this swirl can be more aptly described as flexive command in military terms or distributed authority in business terms. “Lots of diverse partners will come together in new ways to create new kinds of organizational structures that will be more fluid and less rigid,” Johansen writes.
What Can Business Leaders Learn About Shape-Shifting from the Vietnam War?
The U.S. military faced an unfamiliar foe in the Vietnam War: asymmetry. Prior to that, Johansen says, warfare was fairly stylized. Enemies were clearly identified, they wore uniforms, and they generally abided agreed upon rules of engagement. That all changed, however, when the U.S. military faced the uncertainty of guerilla warfare for the first time in the Vietnam War. U.S. military leaders “realized that command-and-control no longer worked.” To adapt, they developed what is known about flexive command. The approach requires leaders to maintain continuous situational awareness because the situation was constantly shifting. They needed to “continually reassess who’s in which position to make the best decision at which time.” As Johansen puts it, they became “very clear about direction, but very flexible about execution.”
Like military leaders, many of business leaders have also found that traditional command-and-control leadership styles don’t work in today’s VUCA world. With rapidly changing conditions, leadership must become more distributed so that decision-making authority belongs to those that have the greatest situational awareness at a given time. Another key characteristic of shape-shifting organizations, Johansen argues, is leaders being able to forge partnerships that benefit themselves and others: “Traditional competition and centralized organizations still work in mature slow-moving markets, but rapidly changing markets will be better served by massively scalable mutual-benefit partnering.”
The distributed leadership and mutually beneficial partnership aspects of shape-shifting organizations allow businesses to forgo certainty in the pursuit of clarity. “The future will reward clarity but it will punish certainty,” Johansen says. “So leaders need to be extremely clear. They need to develop their own clarity and their own ability to express that clarity in a compelling way. But they also need to moderate their certainty.”
A Glimpse into the Future: Looking Backward
Military leaders often face situations that are wrought with VUCA. The challenge is for them to proceed with a clear objective, but remain flexible in terms of execution. Business leaders today face a similar challenge. How can they possibly maintain clarity of vision in an era of unprecedented VUCA? Most can’t. Johansen says the present is “too noisy” to see a clear picture of the future. That’s why it’s imperative to look backward from the future. “The purpose of ten-year future thinking is to come up with a way forward, expressed with clarity and ideally as a story. The best way to lead in a disruptive world is to be very clear where you’re going, tell a great story about it, and then be very flexible about how you bring that future to life,” Johansen writes in The New Leadership Literacies.
This has given rise to a new leadership literacy that Johansen calls “looking backwards from the future.” How can it benefit leaders? Johansen writes, “The reason you look long is to develop the perspective necessary to come up with a good plan of action, a way forward, expressed with clarity and ideally as a story. The big lesson is to be very clear where you’re going, but very flexible how you get there. Action should animate you. That’s the basic discipline of looking backward from the future—but still acting now.”
What’s in Store for Business Leaders?
Johansen describes the world as being in a state of “scramble” as a lot of things that are stuck become unstuck. We have seen this play out in the populist revolts around the world, market forces taking over amid deregulation, growing distribution of information and power, and increasing disparity of wealth. If all of that sounds a bit daunting, Johansen also describes “positive VUCA.” For example, deregulation of energy regulations in the face of climate disruption has given rise to new business initiatives and growing consciousness of companies surrounding climate disruption.
After the AWC event, Johansen said, “Leaders will have to come in with great clarity about the direction to play through the VUCA world to play through the scramble with great flexibility about execution. Because in a VUCA world, you really never know what’s going to happen day to day and you need to be prepared.”
That brings us to one of the best questions Johansen faced from the tough crowd at AWC. An attendee pointed out that some things are not becoming more VUCA—they’ve actually become more stable in recent years.
After some thought, Johansen responded that it “has always been a VUCA world, beginning from the fact that we all have to die at an uncertain time.” What’s changed, however, is that VUCA conditions like climate disruption and wealth inequality have taken on global proportions and have become highly visible in recent years. “And the challenge for leaders is how to engage in that global VUCA, that global uncertainty, in a way that has great clarity of direction, great flexibility of execution,” Johansen said. “You don’t want to get stuck in the clarity of the present.”;