Leading with Purpose and Agility

The Army War College coined the acronym VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity – in 1987, drawing on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus to describe or reflect the general conditions and situations of the post-cold war world. Covid-19 has certainly reinforced the concept; for almost all of us, it is no longer theoretical as we move into our third month of social distancing and working remotely.

While listening to a webinar last weekend, as I was still playing catch-up on fall yard cleanup, I was energized and inspired by the positive reframe of VUCA as presented by futurist Robert Johansen, from the Institute for the Future. He repositions VUCA as a guide for moving forward into the future as Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. And whether you are thinking about it from an individual, team, or organizational perspective – any major accomplishment in life starts with using your imagination to visualize yourself achieving a worthy goal. It includes a clear understanding of your current state, including the emotions, and the clarity of actions/steps required to move toward achieving the outcome. And because things never quite happen as planned, we need the agility, flexibility with purpose to continue to make progress amidst complex and rapidly changing conditions.

This content provided the backdrop for a webinar, “Leading with Purpose and Agility,” that my organization presented for the Syracuse business community at the end of April. The request for the webinar was triggered from our recent blog post regarding the “new” or “next normal.” The premise of the blog was that we may be learning things and becoming aware that some of our previous thinking and patterns of behavior, while comfortable, may not be the most agile or effective. This pandemic has slowed us down and almost forced us to learn about ourselves and the assumptions we make regarding leadership and life. It has certainly raised many questions for me regarding my assumptions, habits, and behaviors, especially as they relate to energy and productivity, such that I am looking to change quite a few things when we return to ‘normal.”

I have had enough conversations with our coaching clients to conclude that many are coming to the realization that some of their patterned behavior may not be as resourceful as it could or needs to be. For instance, many clients are sharing that they are exercising more since they have been working virtually, attributing the elimination of the daily commute as a reason they are finding more time for a healthier lifestyle through physical exercise.

Others, myself included, are enjoying the opportunity to have multiple daily meals with their families. What a sad state of affairs – it takes a global pandemic for me to find time to spend with the people who matter most to me. In the blog post, I also listed a few other things that I did not want to lose or let go of once our regular scheduled programming returns.

  • Not being too busy to connect more deeply with people.
  • My daily walk – that happens to occur in the daylight working hours.
  • Investing a significant time alone in a room considering how I can share my gifts in the world.

This time, or any time of crisis, challenges us to constantly balance the tension between purpose and safety. Purpose is what provides meaning in our lives; it is our why, our reason for being. It is the reason we get up early every morning, ready to meet the day. Safety, in this context, is our conservative nature that has us playing small and afraid to lose. It is imperative that we align and rally our teams and organizations around a shared sense of purpose.

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” – Nietzsche

What is your purpose, your true calling, your reason for existence? When we are on purpose, we keep our eye on the ball – we remember why we are doing what we are doing. It keeps us grounded and aligned. Purpose is our compass which keeps us headed in the right direction even though we get knocked off course frequently. Of course, that assumes we have intentionally created or discovered our purpose and that we use it as true north, our guide in our thinking and actions. This statement is what individuals and organizations do to be self-authorizing and to make their unique mark on the world in which they serve.

I remember the discussion of our partner team when the pandemic settled into our region, and the idea of continuing to implement our high-touch, face-to-face, coaching and training was suddenly and abruptly suspended indefinitely. While we were initially distracted by our fears of how we would pay our mortgages, college tuitions, and insurance premiums, we were reminded of our mission/purpose statement: “To raise the consciousness of leaders and organizations in our region so that all employees realize their full potential and can contribute to what matters most.”

Over the course of two weeks, we offered free coaching to many of our clients’ employees, particularly those who were struggling the most with the volatility and uncertainty of the current situation.   Additionally, we quickly announced and stood up a twice weekly morning reset and re-centering webinars for anyone looking to gather themselves prior to embarking upon another social distancing and/or virtual day. It wasn’t a big thing, just 15 minutes of inspiration and reflection, an opportunity for participants to take a deep breath, examine their assumptions, and perhaps set an intention for the day that was aligned with their purpose and values. Taking time to pause throughout the day gives us a chance to become more aware, more conscious of our default behaviors that are kicking in because of the fear and uncertainty this virus has triggered. Each of us, under pressure, have certain default behaviors intended to keep us safe, and they often show up as complying, protecting, or controlling – or in my case, generating a plethora of new business ideas which probably falls under both the protecting and controlling dimensions. Noticing these tendencies is key and the first step toward transformation. As much as 95 percent of our behavior is automatic, outside of our conscious awareness. By pausing and noticing, we begin to become aware of our triggers as well as the patterns of behavior that are driven by habits of thought, with many of these thoughts imprinted throughout our life story.

The war strategy of the Army War College has been used by non-profit and for-profit companies to assist with strategic planning, and led to other leadership scholars and consultants using these theories to make the case for leadership agility. Because of the pace, complexity, and interdependent nature of change, leaders needed to develop the ability to take wise and effective action amid complex, rapidly changing conditions.

While it may not seem imminent, this current situation will eventually pass, and we will be left with a need to move forward. We have the opportunity to reset our sights on our vision, or perhaps craft a new vision for where we intend to take ourselves and our organizations. We will not only need to understand the gap – the distance between our current and future state – but as leaders we will also need to fully understand how our people are feeling about today and the future.

Clarity, not certainty, provides the organization with the calm and confidence that people need to keep their eye on the ball and to move forward. And all members of the organization need the agility to be both effective and successful in this new model. Agility is defined as the ability to take wise and effective action amid complex, rapidly changing conditions.

We must be willing to look at the structure of our thinking to make positive, sticky change.

It is this last premise that makes the case for utilizing a coach or thought partner to shine a light on the thinking patterns that drive current behavior. If we are not happy or satisfied with our results, then we need to go upstream to the underlying thought that is driving that behavior – or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The ancestor to every action is a thought.” This raises the question, what restructuring of your thinking needs to take place for you to position your organization to achieve outcomes that matter most?

For finding the silver lining in all of this, a lining that creates the new normal, we invite each of you to review and commit to a few of Emergent’s Eight Essential Experiments. Each promises you a slightly different paradigm, necessary to be agile enough in this VUCA world.

  1. First, put down what you no longer need. The old structures of mind that made you successful in the past will not guarantee future success.
  2. Hand pick a small group of people to serve as a capable, resilient, safety net for tough times.
  3. Perform daily gratitude journaling. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude will attract more things to be grateful for.
  4. Slow down to go faster. Replace the linear and chronic summer pace with an integrated and oscillating work/life rhythm.
  5. Get more sleep – at least seven hours.
  6. Invest in five minutes of contemplation and reflection time at the beginning of the day.
  7. Focus on three essential things per day.
  8. Be more vulnerable and practice self-compassion.


Originally appeared in Central New York Business Journal June 8, 2020