Think what happens when you throw a pebble onto the glassy surface of a quiet pond.  It’s easy to see the ripple effect. But if you scatter a handful of gravel in all at once, the ripples collide, reflect and amplify one another to the point where, with all the noise, it’s hard to distinguish cause and effect. Keep tossing in more pebbles and the pond is never still. Never predictable.

VUCA is a U.S. military term for the volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous conditions in which it operates. It’s a tidy acronym for the complex ripple effects we experience in our workplaces and in our personal lives as technical, social, political, economic and natural forces collide all around us.
In our VUCA world we’ve grown used to similar waves of transformation rippling across our political, economic, and social structures – the very fabric of society – each colliding with one another and creating a level of complexity that defies easy description.  Human beings don’t like uncertainty, and a very primitive survival mechanism in our brain inclines us to hunker down and try to control, manage, and systematize it.  It takes a tremendous amount of energy to do this and often results in blind spots which rarely supports a competitive edge.

If you’ve worked with me or a member of the Eithos team, we’ve probably already had a conversation about what it means to step up and lead in a VUCA environment. Chances are that you and your team have been highly successful, but you may have also seen how the volatility and unpredictability can take a toll on your relationships, your teams’ performance, and even your bottom line.  The VUCA context demands that we rethink what it means to lead and how we lead.

COVID-19 has created a VUCA environment on steroids.  It is not simply that our systems and structures are being stretched. They are in many cases breaking, creating chaos.  I use that term “chaos” not to raise anyone’s level of anxiety, but to differentiate it from the complexity of the environment most leaders were already experiencing just a few months ago. Social norms are being redefined as we self-quarantine, work remotely, school remotely, worship remotely and learn to socialize in isolation. Our financial, medical and political systems are in turmoil, and you may be finding that your own organization is facing levels of uncertainty unimaginable just a couple of months ago.

Chaos isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, we propose it’s one of the most powerful and dramatic opportunities you will experience in your lifetime. Chaos can liberate us from old mindsets and patterns of behavior that hold us back. In mathematics, Chaos Theory says that even in chaos, there is order. There are underlying patterns, interconnectedness, constant feedback loops, and often massive amounts of self-organization happening–and so as a leader, it’s important to identify where that effective self-organization is happening.

This is a period where even the smallest of actions can result in dramatically different outcomes or future states.  We’re not talking about slight shifts in how we interact, engage and operate, we’re talking about a revolution in how each of us sees the world.  Concepts that currently don’t exist – for which we don’t even have language – will suddenly take shape. We are already planting the seeds of profound innovation.  I’m confident about this because of the evidence we have in history:

  • While in quarantine, Newton developed his theory of gravity–altering our very understanding of our place in the universe.
  • Gandhi woke us to the possibility that poor unarmed people can win against the most powerful army in the world non-violently. That social awaking emerged out of the British Empire’s harsh efforts to control the 1918 flu outbreak in India and planted the seeds for non-violent social revolution around the world.
  • Out of the greatest plague in European history came the Renaissance, or rebirth, that led us out of the dark ages to create the very fabric of modern-day society.

That’s just a taste. The fact is that we are living through one of the most exciting times in human history. This does not minimize the suffering and loss experienced on the most intimate levels for us and as a society.  However, for those of us who are willing to lean into deep levels of discomfort over who we are and how we see the world, this is a time of tremendous opportunity.

Redefining order amidst chaos only comes by sacrificing long-held beliefs, assumptions and behaviors, including some that served us well before. It will require wrestling with complex and profound questions about our identities and roles, our orientation to the universe.

This is no time for know-it-alls. Instead, let’s bring a level of curiosity and awareness on how the parts of our world are de-integrating, reconfiguring, reassembling. All the building blocks for what comes next are with us. What matters is being open to new levels of insight to determine what pieces we pick up, how we put them together and what we leave behind. The things we create will be utterly new. They may be astounding.  In my tribe we look at the chaos today with tremendous hope and optimism, and I hope you will too.

Each week I will be sharing a few thoughts for leading in chaotic times, and I want to hear yours. Just click here to join the conversation. Please also send me your questions.  I will look forward to exploring them with you on this learning journey.