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How can we thrive in a VUCA environment?

Photo of Lt. Col Takano

Photo of Lt. Col Takano

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- In the 1990s, the U.S. Army War College created an acronym to describe the challenges of operating in a turbulent and rapidly changing environment. It was called “VUCA.”

This concept is older than many of the Airmen we serve with. VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and has been adopted by both military leadership training and civilian business theory.

Volatile represents a condition where events unfold in unexpected ways and uncertain frequency.

Uncertain describes a lack of event predictability, making it difficult to apply lessons learned in the past to predict future outcomes.

Complex problems have multilayered, intermingled causes that drive ineffective reaction and counter-reaction.

Ambiguous issues limit clarity and make the “one size fits all” answer from yesterday ineffective today.

As Operation Freedom’s Sentinel concludes in Afghanistan, and the fight against COVID-19 continues for a second year, there is an unprecedented need for leaders who can adapt and overcome the VUCA factors that plague our day-to-day operations. Burnout can and will result from unchecked chaos, and this can both affect the quality and safety of health care delivery and overall well-being of our Airmen.

As described by Nick Horney, Bill Pasmore and Tom O’Shea in a 2010 article titled, “Leadership agility: A business imperative for a VUCA world,” leaders must be agile by being able to “make continuous shifts in people, process, technology and structure. This requires flexibility and quickness in decision-making.”

Examples of how 88th Medical Group leaders demonstrated this in the COVID environment include establishing one of the largest Air Force Medical Service drive-thru pharmacy operations in the base’s Kittyhawk area and creating new telehealth processes to improve patient access to care and safety. These improvements will remain after the pandemic and are examples of agile leadership.

Yet a very critical weapon to cut through the fog of VUCA is leadership that empowers change — such as the style demonstrated in Apple TV’s “Ted Lasso.”

As the series star, Lasso is an American football coach hired to lead an English Premier League soccer club, where his overwhelming optimism and genuine interest in his team lead to the organization’s unlikely success and respect of his “haters” and critics.

Coach Lasso’s paradigm appears to be the personification of “VUCA Prime,” a countermeasure created by Bob Johansen. In his version, VUCA stands for “vision, understanding, clarity and agility.” Leaders like Ted Lasso who apply VUCA Prime can thrive and create opportunities for success instead of suffering from terminal paralysis by analysis.

As demonstrated by Lasso, a clear vision can be a lighthouse in a storm, guiding an organization through the weather to safe harbor.

Understanding can be demonstrated by communicating with the entire team and fostering teamwork to achieve success. Clarity requires resource consolidation to achieve the priorities needed to accomplish the mission and skip the minutiae.

Both understanding and clarity require leaders to often leave their comfort zones and defer to the expertise of others. When done with an open mind and a clear heart, this can earn trust and is viewed as a strength instead of a weakness.

Finally, the agility concept is revisited. When used with the other VUCA Prime tools, agility can act as the hammer on that anvil when leaders are able to make the correct decisions and execute rapidly to take advantage of limited windows of opportunity.

By applying the VUCA Prime leadership style of Ted Lasso — weaponizing curiosity, leading with both vision and humility, and fostering teamwork — it is possible to thrive in our current world. Not every plan will survive first contact, and we will continue to face new challenges in the future. Regardless, we can choose to lead with courage and compassion and finish the year strong.

Let’s strive to be “Diamond Dogs!”