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Leading in a VUCA World

Now more than ever, the world seems to be changing quickly, making it a challenge for us to keep up. With COVID-19, workforce shortages, employee anxiety, climate change, social unrest, political brutality, domestic terrorism, and more, it feels like we are in a perpetual earthquake that has been going nonstop for several years now. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) is the new normal, and we all need to adapt to that reality.

Rather than asking when this proverbial earthquake will stop, you need to navigate how to lead more effectively in this unbelievably difficult time. Learn to transform your organization into one that is mentally and emotionally healthy and resilient, no matter how unpredictable the world seems to be. During Leading in a VUCA World, Ron Holifield, CEO of Strategic Government Resources (SGR), equipped attendees with practical strategies for transforming their organizations into ones that can thrive both now and in the future as the earthquakes keep on coming.

Societal Changes and How Your Colleagues Are Thinking and Feeling

There are many societal changes that those in the local government profession knew were bound to happen, but were still not fully prepared for the implications. It was no secret that baby boomers would be leaving the workforce in droves, diversity would continue to increase in all facets, training and development would become more important than ever, and social media would have some unintended corrosive tendencies, but no one seemed to be prepared for the seismic shifts that these changes continue to create.

While some of these shifts have been good for the profession, others have presented a level of pain and difficulty that still endures today. Social media has created a disconnect with reality and a “my facts are as good as your facts” mentality where people stick to narratives that may have little to no truth to them. Increasingly narrow views and false narratives have led to polarization, more partisanship in nonpartisan bodies, overt racism, conflict over religion, and the notion that government is the enemy.

Sitting in the CAO chair can be a lonely place, one where you are neither staff nor council, and it can be hard to relate to others. Hollifield presented different views from local government leaders on the state of the profession, and they presented overwhelming stances of feeling loneliness, a lack of support, and the sense that this form of governance is in a battle for survival. Their suggestions to remedy these feelings include celebrating their successes, finding encouragement for employees (act as an insulator), leaning on current managers to help save the profession, and renewing these institutions through real servant leadership.

Accept, Understand, and Anticipate

This profession can feel draining and thankless at times, which is why there are things every local government leader needs to accept, understand, and anticipate in order to prevent being burnt out and curtail the fallout from these societal changes.

Accept the environment you operate in, which is inherently political. In this environment more often than others, people can be unreasonable and hypercritical, but not every "squeaky wheel" you run into is right or even reasonable. An entire 6% of Americans think that chocolate milk comes from chocolate cows, so that person who is giving your organization unnecessary grief could very well be one of those 6%.

Understand that training and development strategies are more tailored to the last generation, but they are needed to develop the new generation of leaders. Recognize the nature of political culture as being more now-focused rather than future-focused, with a greater concern for ideology rather than cause and effect. There is also more of a hunger for a sense of community.

Anticipate the growing talent shortage and be willing to develop new strategies to deal with it. In addition to the ever-increasing talent shortage, fewer of the best and brightest will be willing to take the top role because it is being seen as less and less desirable. However, as the next generation of leaders rapidly funnels in, organizational DNA and institutional values can become compromised. Finally, anticipate the inevitable rise of  political dysfunction, and be ready to develop the emotional skills to address it.

Hold True, and Change the Status Quo

Even when you feel like the odds are stacked against you, it is important to treat everyone with honor, dignity, and respect, whether or not they deserve it or give it to you in return. While holding true to your ideals is important, there are some things that you can change for the betterment of your organization and profession. Rethink the way you recruit, assess, and develop employees. Restructure succession planning and how you protect and imprint organizational DNA. Arguably the most important thing to do differently is quit being bashful about the nobility of local government service, especially to the front-line workers. Instilling pride in this work is what will help change people’s views of this profession.

No matter what the consequence, always hold true to what is right. Live up to the ethical standards of the profession, the reformist spirit of the profession, and the legacy you want for yourself. Be proactive about the unique opportunity you have to help transform your organization and the profession in this trying time. Improve on collaboration efforts, strategic planning, and learning initiatives. Invest wisely in people development, business analytics, and data analytics to get ahead of the curve. Guide your organization to thrive in times of rapid change, explore new ways of doing business, and develop an internal social media enterprise to help combat the inherent negativity and polarization those platforms can bring to your community.

Danger and Opportunity

Learning how to navigate this ever-changing VUCA world leads to opportunity to shape a positive new future for the profession. Remember that the negatives of VUCA can always be turned around; volatility yields to vision, uncertainty yields to understanding, complexity yields to clarity, and ambiguity yields to agility.


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