Leading in a VUCA World

Dapper looking and energetic, Capt Raghu Raman, Group President of Mahindra cuts a very impressive figure. Having served the Armed Forces, the bureaucracy including corporates, he brings to the table an extraordinary experience. It was all too evident during his Closing Valedictory address at the NASSCOM HR Summit. By the end of the day, the audience had lapped up the emcee’s interesting “did you know” pop-ups, as she unearthed off-the-record nuggets about speakers. She had tried to dig information from the ex-Captain as well to which he was known to have retorted, “For that I will have to kill you”, which of course he later denied most conveniently, and to our mirth.

Of all the three engagements, he said, the one in the army was the easiest. Jocularly he remarked that at least there he knew which side the enemy was on. This elicited a peel of laughter, as a hall full of people identified with their own raging battles in the maze of corporate jungles.    

Paradigm Shift that’s Upon Us – Despite Our Resistance

The Army is characterized by the autocratic approach to leadership. The bureaucracy and corporates on the other hand are driven by consensus and incentives respectively. Despite such elaborate structures, gaps are evident between resource deployment and its availability. For instance, the now infamous Pathankot attack last year was due to gaping holes in the airbase. Could these holes not have been identified & fixed? This, despite the fact that the government still had in excess of 37000 Crores in its kitty as part of its defence spend. Or, take the case of thousands of tons of grains which rotted every year. Shipping Corporation of India had containers which were not sea-worthy – so why weren’t the grains stored in those containers to avoid wastage? Disturbingly, such occurrences in both public and private spheres were not uncommon. And, it’s not only restricted to India. Pentagon, which spends 700 billion USD annually on defence was susceptible as well to cyberattacks. Elsewhere, project deadlines have extended inordinately. Sounds familiar? Why does it happen in every sphere repeatedly? Humans continue to apply themselves in the same manner again and again despite the blunders. Is that a sign of insanity? Maybe not. Despite the change in paradigm, we continue to not take adequate steps and at best effect only incremental measures.            

Nearly 150 years ago, Fredrick Winslow Taylor came up with Time & Motion study and thus was born the concept of roles and job definition. But in a complex world this won’t work. Consider this, there were thousands of rapes before and after Nirbhaya, but it took only one case to nearly topple the government. Or, imagine a snooker player striking the ball perfectly but in the very next shot, he misses by a few microns. But the ensuing result would be vastly different, and would have little in common from the previous instance when the shot was taken perfectly. That’s the kind of world we live in today, “where the flap of a butterfly can set off a storm.”   


Al-Qaeda as an “organization” could be decapitated eventually by killing their leaders one-by-one. However, this strategy wasn’t effective on ISIS. The next-in-line proved to be even more barbaric. The heads of Hydra just refused to die. Despite all the talk on cybersecurity it is only 1% of attackers who actually get convicted. So, 99% remain emboldened by the fact that they will somehow escape the dragnet. Clearly, the tools of the past are not working and our challenges continue to get compounded. Though we talk about nimble, agile systems but in reality most of us are mired in cumbersome bureaucracy. Like rowers, we face our past achievements and our backs are turned to the path ahead. 

We are like a ship, a gigantic ocean liner, hurtling towards and iceberg. A rookie is able to spot it. But the management remains unconvinced and sends an experienced hand to check. When it’s confirmed, a “committee” decides whether to veer left or right because choices have very different outcomes and sacrifices will have to be made accordingly. Eventually the ship turns right and misses a head-on collision. But the left-hold grazes the ice-berg and it’s breached. Water gushes in and the ship tilts. That’s evident to the outside world. To balance it, water is poured on the other side. This obviously slows the engine down. To make her run faster, “management” pumps in more fuel. Net result? We end up burning more fuel per kilometer of progress in comparison to our competitor who is nimble. Buzzwords remain unchanged and we continue to attempt the same thing.

Leading without Authority

Many organisations still have single points of contact for specific functions. This often impedes workflow because of the individual’s unavailability. Why can’t we have organisations where everyone is connected and embrace the idea of leading without authority. For that to happen, “Speed of Trust” is required. The job gets done on time and documentation follows. The work is not held up. General rules are set but it is the job of the leader to deviate if situation demands to optimize on outcome. This can happen in “Fluid Organisations” characterized by “Team of Teams.”       

Having said that, obviously there will be industries which can only function in a disciplined and authoritative environment. The IT industry has also brought in the concept of Coaching as part of its leadership lexicon.

Leader as a Gardener  

He provides an environment for plants to grow and at their own pace. He realizes that not all can grow at the same pace and time. But he makes sure there is adequate nurturing and impediments to growth are removed. In a VUCA world, the traditional approach is unlikely to work. VUCA leaders focus on building skills for future. 

He also provides an environment which is termed as Boundary Conditions of Failure. The team members are primed up for performance but there is always a protective wall which protects them from severe damage to reputation or morale in case of failure.

Shared Reality & the Impact of Storytelling

The next big idea is about the power of storytelling and creating a Shared Reality – a vision which the entire organization believes in. Leaving morality aside, imagine the kind of influence terrorist leaders have on suicide bombers – to be able to influence them into giving up their lives for a cause. 

Culture of Learning

This is a business imperative. And, this has to permeate across the organization. For instance, the white collared can offer to train the blue collared in an organization on effective life’s skills. In process, the recipients can increase their earning potential many times over and bring about an orbit shift. It’s also an example of idle capacity being optimally utilized.

The tolerance for ambiguity will have to be high. Before, changing over to a new career in her mid-forties, a friend had remarked, “I kept looking for clarity but the truth is when one gives commitment, clarity comes automatically.” Exactness is not always possible but what is required is a general direction. And, of course, to know that one does not always know!   

This blog is about the author’s session at NASSCOM HR Summit. You can see blogs from other session using this tag: hr summit 2017 

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