One CEO of a large organization recently offered his view of the leadership challenge that he and his people face. He explained:
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.
Many senior leaders we talk to face precisely a situation that makes them think like this. No matter how experienced a leader they are, they find themselves dealing with problems more difficult and complex than anything they’ve known before – and feel inadequately educated, prepared and supported to master them.
The challenge for leaders today is that, as the world changes so quickly, the future becomes far less predictable and the problems become exponentially harder. This is the direct experience of the VUCA[i] environment: a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world at economic, social, political, technological and environmental levels. As these variables intersect, it is chaos for most and opportunity for only a few that ensues… unless leaders know and train in how to steer chaos towards innovation. In our view and experience, “awareness-based leaders” can do just that.
Rather than succumbing to VUCA disorientation, they can create new power and possibility stemming from training in awareness-based leadership. Where others ‘fall back on conventions, which give them the assurance that they are doing the right thing’, as economist John Maynard Keynes put it, having a focused awareness of the fact that the world is changing irrevocably alters the way we think about the present and the future. New possibilities typically emerge from the current context as one new idea collides with another new or existing perspective, but it takes an aware leader to see the congruence between them and thus “think and act anew” to create true innovation.
To do this, leaders must be able and willing to push at the edges of the seemingly impossible. Our minds love categorizing and ‘learning from the past’ in order to keep us safe as we move into the future. We are constantly making decisions about risk and reward, biased towards the Known over the To-Be-Known. This process has worked well for many years in slower and more predictable environments where leaders had the luxury of making decisions based on what they think is most probable, given the information and ‘lessons learned’ from the past. What most leaders are unaware of, however, is that because they are using the past as a measure of what’s likely to occur, they create constraints around powerful possibilities that want to emerge. The key challenge for leaders and decision makers at all levels of organizations is letting the rise of VUCA change the way they work and think.
The future has always been unknown. Marshal McLuhan said, “We drive into the future using only our rear view mirror.” Because there is no way of knowing what’s next, we are always walking forward with our hands outstretched into the darkness in front of us, waiting to bump into things. But because things are changing so rapidly today, we cannot keep up with our ability to predict what will happen next from what has happened before. Managing VUCA is thus about understanding, perceiving, and accepting what is possible rather than what is most likely going to happen.
[i] The usage of the acronym VUCA began in the 1990s and derives from military vocabulary
Changing How Leaders Think: Vertical Development
This shift, differentiating the field of powerful possibilities from the most likely, is much more demanding than it sounds. As research has shown in study after study, our minds simply don’t like this and our brains are not wired for it. Our general pattern is to prune and simplify. We need to work at overcoming an ingrained automatism of resistance to the very idea of learning to see the world as it occurs versus how we like to believe it is, based on past stories, if we are going to create new patterns of thinking and acting in this new world – and this is no small feat!
Luckily, there is a silver lining on the horizon of the above-described dilemma. It has led to increased interest among executives and leaders worldwide in developing improved levels of awareness. At SyNet, we have noticed a major shift in focus from ticking off ever-increasing lists of leadership skills and competencies (horizontal or informative learning) to a willingness to explore deeper layers of being, emotion and cognition (vertical or transformative development) as a result of having to operate in an environment that requires substantial changes in the way we think, engage with ourselves and others, and take action.
Let’s spend a moment in today’s reading (we’ll go deeper into this and the other dimensions in subsequent articles) reflecting on cognitive development: how can humans change the way they think, and can organizations change the way they ‘think’?
Looking at how people think and reason is not new. Cognitive development has its roots with Greek, Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, and in modern times researchers such as Otto E. Laske, author of Dialectical Thinking for Integral Leaders: A Primer, have contributed extensively to Dialectics or Reasoning. Dialectics defines four classes of thought that people use to capture and see reality. In ascending order, these are:
- Context – how things are not independent, but part of the structure of a larger, stable whole;
- Relatedness – how different things that are part of a much larger whole are related and what they have in common;
- Process – how things or systems emerge, evolve and disappear;
- Transformation – how systems are in constant development and transformation.
Vertical development requires organizations to fundamentally redefine how they approach management, leadership, and executive development so that people can think and act at all four of these levels. The ability to move swiftly and vertically through these levels opens up insights and allows new ideas to emerge. This verticality of thought pushes people to explore the further edges of knowing (including themselves), to see the potential for transformation, which is what leads to a culture of innovation.
On the surface, the approach to teaching people to improve their vertical thinking may seem similar to traditional learning and development – e.g., group projects, instructor-led sessions, mentoring and coaching, yet it is quite different to what most people are familiar with. Developing more sophisticated ways of thinking requires individuals to:
- become responsible for their own learning so that they naturally and always pursue what their mind is most passionate about learning;
- identify and access the necessary learning resources they need to learn;
- engage and apply key concepts and frameworks while working on actual team projects,
- explore unfamiliar frontiers on their own with the assistance of mentors and coaches experienced in vertical thinking.
The result of this type of approach to developing vertical development will be awareness-based managers, leaders and executives who are adept at being able to handle any kind of situation, be it simple, complicated, complex or chaotic either on their own or in collaboration with others in the organization.
Awareness-Based Leadership: A Practice More than a Theory
In essence, awareness-based leaders…
- talk to one another differently, as they know that conditions and circumstances of the future do emerge as part of their conversations;
- listen and gather information differently as they are acutely aware of the constraints of ‘downloading the past;’
- sense context differently as they understand sense-making as going beyond what reality allows as ‘the way it is;’
- map thepresent and future in ways that enable breakthrough action;
- shape and re-shape internal and external strategies as a systemic whole of interdependencies;
- continuously train in cultivating new habits of mind that stretch and expand them to deal in more thoughtful and multidimensional ways with the complexity that the world shows up in.