VUCA Rising

When the hi-tech company Uber first arrived on the scene in 2009, it brought the personal transportation industry in some cities to its knees. Representing what has become known as the “sharing economy,” Uber’s business model is based on an app that allows people to “tap a button, get a ride.”

Taxi companies were not excited about Uber. Can you imagine belonging to a sector of the economy that requires you to pay thousands of dollars in “membership” fees only to have a new incumbent playing by a completely different set of rules? That is the reality for cab drivers around the world these days who pay thousands of dollars to have their taxi license and “taxi point” only to see those privileges mean nothing with Uber on the scene.

Naturally, cab drivers stood their ground and said, “This is our territory. This is how it’s done.”

Uber’s response? “Not anymore.”

As we know, rapid, massive change isn’t always received well and can cause emotions to run high. In Brazil, angry cab drivers attacked Uber drivers in retaliation against the disruption Uber was causing to their livelihoods. It reached a point when taxi drivers saw a black car, they’d assume it was an Uber Black; they would then proceed to break the car’s windows, dent the hood and, in a few rare cases, physically hurt the drivers. While violence is never the answer, what the cab drivers did is a perfectly natural emotional response to the threats they felt from change.

This same type of disruption and subsequent retaliation is currently happening in every market around the world in boardrooms, classrooms and cubicles. VUCA is the cause, and it is now the norm rather than the exception in most situations.

Navigating change has never been easy, but in today’s VUCA environment, it can feel almost impossible. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, and it essentially defines conditions in the 21st century workplace.

VUCA has been trending for the past several years, catching many people off guard from first-world countries. Due to these new world conditions, centuries-old institutions are crumbling or being questioned. Institutions such as schools, work, government, and even the church are now being questioned as new and improved models are coming forth.

When I first heard stories about people who’d never experienced a VUCA environment talking about these conditions, my initial response was, “Oh my God, of course! That’s VUCA.”

I recognized it right away. I recognized it because VUCA has defined my life since I was two years old. Growing up in a “third world country,” I was exposed to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity every day. It was my reality.

For those for whom VUCA is new, their response to it is quite different. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard clients tell me, “Oh my God, Claudio, we don’t know what’s happening” as they look around their organization and see nothing but VUCA’s handprint on everything.

While having experienced VUCA for as long as I have certainly gives me a slight edge in knowing how to respond in any number of different situations, I am still learning every day how to best address the demands of 21st century leadership.

What does the presence of VUCA mean for organizations and their leaders? For starters, to successfully lead in a VUCA environment requires more than acquiring an external set of skills or focusing on things like wardrobe, posture, and communication style. While these factors have their place, effective leadership also requires addressing who you are being on the inside.

A good analogy to focusing on who you are being on the inside is when you go skydiving. My instructor, Sargento Magalhães, always reminded us that the place to open the reserve parachute is always located in the same region in the body, no matter if we were upside down, twisting, turning, or spinning. The same can be said of navigating in a VUCA environment. No matter what VUCA conditions you have around you, you can always access your internal compass to know what your next move needs to be.

Takeaway Question: How is VUCA present in your company or organization? What is its impact?

This is an excerpt of my book “The Samurai Samba Vinci Way: How to Improve Your Executive Presence, Increase Trust and Lead Your Team at a World-Class Level” available at Amazon