Strategic Leadership in a VUCA World - Pat Akem-Vingir PhD
Leadership matters. Leadership matters because it makes significant differences in people’s lives, within nations and organizations. Leadership is a mystical thing, to many, esoteric and ungraspable. To some scholars, leadership is a rather hazy, distant and even confusing abstraction. Thinking and defining leadership is thus an intellectual challenge in itself. But leadership matters – everything depends on it, family units, communities, organizations and nation states depend on leadership the way we need oxygen – everything rises or falls on leadership (Kouzes & Posner, 2016). The whole subject is riddled with paradoxes. The paradox of leadership is very stark when viewed against the backdrop of the fact that Churchill, Washington, Martin Luther King Jr were leaders and so were Hitler, Mussolini, Jim Jones and Foday Sanko – this illusive concept can be attached to the exceptional, the good, the bad and ugly of this world (Kellerman, 2004). In other words, leadership can be exercised in the service of noble, liberating, enriching ends, but it can also serve to manipulate, mislead and repress.
The 21st Century world faces very novel and indeed an array of ever-evolving challenges that have continued to task the imaginations of strategic leaders. The world grapples with the challenge of poverty that is at epidemic levels, growing inequalities, new forms of diseases, conflicts, and the increasing influence of unsavoury non-state actors – terrorist organizations that are exploiting ungoverned spaces, poor governance, and negative use of technological inventions and outbreaks of pandemic diseases like COVID-19 among others. Nations and organizations equally face challenges occasioned by climatic change, migration of peoples across continents and cultures, competition for scarce resources some of which are non-renewable. Correlated to the aforementioned challenges are others like economic hardships, ever-increasing youthful populations that are unemployed and restive, and poor governance. The quest for leadership has increased because challenging events like COVID-19 can occur without notice, in some part of the world with impact on other nations, across continents.
To underpin this discourse, I will explore and situate the key concepts of leadership, strategy, strategic leadership and VUCA. Because of space constraints, I will not be undertaking expansive conceptual definitions. The aim is to throw up a number of definitions that may shed further light on this illusive phenomenon.
Leadership as a concept has attracted such numerous striking definitions that trying to settle on one is always challenging. In fact, in one conference whose main task was to settle on a couple of acceptable definitions of the phenomenon, scholars drew up about 4900 definitions. It is a fascinating concept. Bennis (2009) underscores the challenge of crafting an acceptable definition of this concept when he states that “leadership is like beauty: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it” (p.xxx). Notable author, coach and expert on the subject John Maxwell contends that leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less (2007). While leadership is indeed influence, the leadership guru’s definitions fails to identify the kind of influence and the parties involved, because leadership does not exist without followers. Bennis posits that it is the capacity to translate vision into reality (2009). This definition is difficult to argue with chiefly because great and exceptional leaders are visionary. Northouse conceptualises leadership as a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal (2019). In other words, leadership by its very nature involves an influencing process that results in achieving a desired outcome. Without synthesising and conceptualizing a working definition, I will contend that leadership is interactive influence.
Strategy and strategic leadership have become buzz words in the 21st Century. Strategic leadership is broad in scope, impact and reach. In a general sense, strategic leadership exits when a group of two or more people has created common direction, alignment, and commitment (Hughes, Beatty & Dinwoodie, 2014). Strategic leadership has been defined as the ability to anticipate, be visionary, while maintaining the flexibility to empower others to create strategic changes (Hitt, Ireland & Hoskidson, 2007). Strategic leadership requires leaders to initiate processes that ensure their organizations or nations scan the environment to maintain an awareness of societal, international, technological, demographic, and economic developments (Cousins, 2018; Elkington, Pearse, Moss, Van, & Martin, 2017; Tint, McWaters, & Raymond, 2015). Failure to scan the horizon with a view to identifying and signposting events capable of impacting nations and organizations negatively may be catastrophic.
VUCA is an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (Cousins, 2018; Elkington, Pearse, Moss, Van, & Martin, 2017; Tint, McWaters, & Raymond, 2015). It is an apt description of the present world where an unforeseen event like COVID-19 or the killing of an individual by a state or its agents upends the immediate and long-term strategic plans of nations and corporations. In the 1990s, the US Army War College (USAWC) coined the concept VUCA to signify the end of the Old War and the commencement of a new NextGen warfare epitomised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (Cousins, 2018; Elkington, Pearse, Moss, Van, & Martin, 2017; Fry, 2016; Tint, McWaters, & Raymond, 2015).
Strategic Leadership in this VUCA World
Strategic leadership is broad in scope, impact and reach. Strategic leadership perches on the highest point of the leadership pyramid for a purpose. From that perch higher than others, strategic leaders have a bird’s eye view of the external and internal environments – they look across the horizon, spotting opportunities and signs of dangers. Strategic leaders operate in a VUCA world. VUCA has become the general shorthand for conditions leaders may continue to encounter in the very fluid 21st Century World. Effective and outstanding strategic leaders are therefore anticipatory and try to make sense of uncertain internal and external environments. This, they do by generating competing hypotheses that avoid the trap of getting stuck on a simple, single answer (Rowe, 2001; Schoemaker & Krupp, 2015). They know how to operate in this VUCA era, they know how to “eat the elephant”, one bite at a time - they tackle developmental and national issues in a deliberate, proactive, information-driven and strategic fashion. Strategic leaders solve very challenging and novel problems.
The phrase “strategic leadership” emerged from works on strategic management and involves the following: (1) determining strategic direction; (2) exploring and maintaining unique core competencies; (3) developing human capital; (4) sustaining an effective organisational/national culture; (5) emphasising ethical practices; and (6) establishing balanced organisational controls (Hitt et al., 2001; Jooste & Fourie, 2009). Sosik et al (2005) insist that outstanding strategic leaders are those executives who display key behaviors that enable their organisations or nations to execute its strategy effectively. This has been easily applied by leaders involved in crisis management. COVID-19, its aftermath, the near collapse of national economies, the creation of a new normal for the world underscore the imperativeness of smart, adaptive and knowledgeable strategic leadership. In essence, strategic leaders are “strategy-focused leaders”. Strategic leadership has the capacity to anticipate, envision, maintain flexibility, think strategically, and work with others to initiate changes (Gakenia, Katuse, & Kiriri, 2017; Meuser et al, 2016). Strategic leadership has the potential to be a solution to recurrent leadership problems as it is as an amalgamation of various leadership styles, and about 20 leadership theories according to Meuser et al (2016). While formulating strategy is a critical part of a strategic leader’s role, it has been the focus of important studies that look at how leaders formulate strategy and whether or not they make sound strategic decisions (Sosik et al., 2005).
Strategic leadership explicitly identifies a vision that guides an inclusive process to set strategies. It thrives on the flexibility to switch between styles based on the existing conditions and environment (Fletcher, 2012). One-dimensional leaders fail in this environment. Strategic leaders are keenly aware of the complexities of the national and international security and economic environments. Leadership at the strategic level, is widely known as one of the key drivers of efficient strategy execution, an element critical to crisis management (Gakenia, Katuse, & Kiriri, 2017). In essence, strategic leaders are ‘‘strategy-focused leaders’’ (Sosik et al., 2005). They process and assimilate huge piles of data, gleaning critical information to ground decisions after assessing alternatives. Leaders that are averse to consuming and making sense of huge data will fail in this era. Effective strategic leaders come on board with the ability to anticipate, envision, and maintain flexibility and to empower others to create strategic changes in line with national development goals (Davies & Davies, 2006; Singleton et al, 2011). Strategic leadership is versatile. But at the national and organizational levels, it involves managing through subordinates, distributing resources, creating alignment and focusing teams while helping the nation or organization to cope with changes that appear to be increasing significantly in today’s globalised environment (Huey 1994).
To succeed at the strategic level, leaders must: (1) understand the breadth, scope, and complexity of the environment in which they operate; (2) appreciate the magnitude of the potential costs of their decisions; (3) leverage senior leadership teams, and (4) operate as stewards and managers of professional and accountable bureaucratic arms (Cousins, 2018; Elkington, Pearse, Moss, Van, & Martin, 2017). Strategic leadership demands the ability to integrate both the internal and external environments, and engage in multifaceted information processing to arrive at workable options that translate into achieving the desired end-state. The strategic leader is in fact, a champion, able to demonstrate an unusual commitment and exceptional enthusiasm to implement his vision and every serious nation needs such a leader. A strategic leader must anticipate, create a vision, empower others and exercise flexibility, to generate a strategic and viable future (Gakenia, Katuse, & Kiriri, 2017). COVID-19 for instance has shone a bright light on leaders and the skills they operate with while equally exposing, in some cases, ineptitude and lack of capacity to deal with the inherent threats in this VUCA world. Interestingly, the most effective leaders in this COVID-19 crisis have been women – Germany, Iceland and New Zealand are a few examples.
Strategic leadership largely entails strategic, long-range projecting but increasingly, it has become clear that it is not just about having the vision but also achieving the desired future. This is important in a VUCA environment. To succeed, a strategic leader acknowledges the presence of uncertainty of the expected future and accordingly develops strategies to tackle the unknown that if left unattended, may inhibit the execution of vision (Gakenia, Katuse, & Kiriri, 2017). It must be stressed that nations and organizations now operate in technology-driven contexts, rife with rapidly changing, highly volatile environments with disruptive and destructive changes. On the whole, several identifiable actions and features qualify strategic leadership as postulated by many scholars. These qualities contribute positively to effective strategy execution, identifying the strategic direction to follow, setting and establishing standard organisational controls, managing national resources effectively, maintaining an effective national culture and emphasising ethical practices (Sosik et al., 2005). Strategic leaders need to understand organizational, national, and world politics – they must know how the present world works. They operate in intricate networks of overlapping and sometimes competing constituencies and must possess the presence of mind to multitask and navigate through them. This has become increasingly necessary in the light of COVID-19 and its associated challenges.
In a very complex and challenging world, strategic leadership engineers and manages strategic sudden changes in line with the internal and external environment currents to fit into the design for crisis management in an emergent world. There is enough empirical and anecdotal evidence to support the proposition that strategic leadership will succeed in a VUCA world if it is adaptive, knowledgeable, nimble and capable of building consensus with multicultural and diverse teams. Strategic leaders generate strategic visions for an expected future state, communicate such visions, model the visions, and ensure the required buy-ins towards their attainments. Strategic leadership is needed for this VUCA world because of its nature, character and contours – the ability to anticipate, envision and maintain flexibility while empowering others to create a strategic change and a viable future.
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