November 1st, 2011

It’s a VUCA World

 The military coined the term VUCA,  but all leaders are living it. VUCA  stands for:


The speed and nature of change  bombarding local government is  unprecedented. A turbulent economy  coupled with shifting demands has led  public agencies to rethink everything.


There is a lack of predictability in government budgets, in political winds, and in public sentiment, which creates hesitancy in decision making. One thing is certain: nothing is certain anymore.


There are a multitude of forces, bewildering issues, and heavy duty pressures surrounding public sector work. Whether you work in public finance, labor relations, social services, capital projects, or general government administration, it’s not as easy as it used to be.


The current reality is hazy, bringing with it the potential for costly misreads. While you try to plan for the future, you have the sense that “anything could happen” these days.

Sound like your life?

Even if you’ve participated in extensive leadership development and studied the art and practice of public leadership, you may be feeling unprepared for the current challenges.

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) studied more than 16,000 managers working in the government sector and found that governments cannot afford to sink resources into “normal” leadership development initiatives and expect to produce leaders who are successful in the VUCA environment. The old methods of leadership development are unlikely to turn out leaders who can successfully navigate the volatile environment we now face.

The CCL identified factors that limit a leader’s effectiveness and long-term success. The highest ranked factor was “too narrow functional orientation.” A narrow orientation exists when you lack the depth to manage outside of your current function. For example, a Fire Chief may have little experience working with elected officials or a Human Resources Manager may have little or no line experience. In these cases, the leader’s view of the organization is limited; therefore, they are challenged to adapt or shift as the VUCA environment inevitably does.

What is a public sector leader to do?

If you are preparing to take on higher level leadership roles in the public sector or if you are struggling to manage the VUCA environment (even in the private sector), here are a few simple tips:

· Learn beyond your world. If you have spent your career in law enforcement or in planning, consider a move to another department. Seeing public service from a different perspective will prepare you for the complexity of local government leadership. Job rotation is a good thing.

· Learn about yourself. Self-awareness, an accurate picture of your strengths and weaknesses, coupled with a willingness to improve, is a key factor in your leadership effectiveness. When you are not fully aware of how you are perceived and how you impact others, you are not fully equipped to lead and manage in a topsy-turvy world. Strong relationships with others will help you be effective, but a strong sense of self is even more important.

· Increase your resistance awareness. A key factor in leader ineffectiveness, according to CCL, is “difficulty changing or adapting.” All leaders think they drive change and that it’s others who resist it. Yet, the studies show that resisting change is one of the top factors in public sector leader derailment. This begs the question, “what have you been resisting?”

· Manage problems now. One of the behavioral descriptors CCL uses to describe effective leaders is the ability to, “confront problem employees.” Public sector leaders can no longer afford to kick the can as it relates to poor employee performance. Now is the time to implement robust and clear performance management practices that hold employees accountable for achieving meaningful outcomes.

Leading in the public environment can be highly challenging, extremely demanding, and tremendously trying. It can also be exceptionally satisfying when you focus on building the skills necessary to be successful in a VUCA environment.

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