Disaster preparedness and response professionals had a front-row seat for the turbulence in 2017. A historic hurricane season left first responders and the communities they serve struggling to keep up. Fires continue to ravage the west. Active shooter and terrorism incidents keep everyone on edge. Infectious disease outbreaks remain a constant worry. Cyberattacks open a new threat vector. Prolonged preparation, response, and recovery put stress on physical, emotional, financial, and infrastructure systems. Leaders must adapt to changing circumstances and needs.
The term VUCA is familiar to many in the preparedness and response communities. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Military officials coined the acronym to describe the emerging threat matrix defined more by disaggregated actors such as al-Qaida and, more recently, the Islamic State group (IS) and lone-wolf attackers than by monolithic threats such as the Soviet Union. Today, the VUCA is used to describe everything from business conditions to weather in addition to its military applications. It calls for more nimble thinking and action. In the context of VUCA:
- Volatility is the real and perceived increase in the pace of change.
- Uncertainty reflects a decline in predictability – surprises are to be expected.
- Complexity refers to the myriad interdependencies that connect organizations across geographic, sector, and social boundaries. In complex adaptive systems, similar inputs may yield wildly different outputs.
- Ambiguous refers to certain fuzziness in the present and the future, “Who exactly is the enemy – and how best are they countered?”
The Context Now: From VUCA to VUCAST
Through personal research, two more letters have been added to the acronym: System-scale change (S) and Transparency (T). System-scale change marks the current age. There have always been wars, financial volatility, pandemics, and other disruptions. However, the simultaneous remaking of multiple industries – from banking to publishing to retail and more – has been leading to uncertainty about jobs and financial well-being. Along with this, there are significant shifts in the natural world on which societies depend for food, water, and other resources. For example, severe weather events are reported to be increasing in frequency and intensity.
Four mega-trends stand out where the long-term trend line is clear, even though there remains great variability over the short-term. These trends have global effects and the potential to be fundamentally transformational:
- Climate change – Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria are just the latest examples of the consequences of a climate in flux. Dramatic wildfires flare. Seas are rising and warming. Wet places are getting wetter. Drier areas are becoming drier. Crop yields are less predictable. Food and water insecurity are on the rise.
- Global urbanization – More than half of the human population now resides in urban areas and will rise to 75% by 2030. Most of this growth will be in the developing world without robust governance structures or public health infrastructure. For example, Ebola became a global threat in 2014-2015, not because it was a new virus but rather because it emerged in a densely populated area where rapid spread was inevitable – and almost unstoppable.
- The aging of the developed world – The global north is aging because of greater longevity. Europe is aging fastest followed by North America. Vulnerable elderly populations present distinct challenges for first responders, the health care system, and other preparedness, response, and recovery professionals.
- The continued exponential growth of computing power and, with it, interconnectedness – Technology will continually evolve rapidly, making investment decisions more challenging than ever. Collective knowledge will surge, and an unprecedented number of people will have access to it.
The T is for ubiquitous Transparency. In the new reality, almost everyone can see almost everything in almost real time thanks to innovations such as smartphones, pervasive communications networks, and even low-level commercial satellites. The power to upload live video is in the hands of the average person. For example, on social media, citizen journalists streamed live, raw, unfiltered reports of the August 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. In another case, a video of an airline passenger dragged from his seat by security personnel became an instant viral sensation. On a daily basis, body-camera footage documents the actions of law enforcement.
In a VUCAST world, there are three defining characteristics of organizations that thrive, be it a government agency, nongovernmental organization, or a private sector corporation: Adaptive capacity, Resilience, and high levels of Trust (ART). Building this capacity is at the heart of ARTful leadership.
Making the Shift to ARTful Leadership
Despite living in the digital age, many organizations remain rooted in an analog, industrial mindset based on linear thinking that optimizes for control. A thicket of regulations and rules governs who does what. It takes years to learn how to work in the system. In such an environment, individuals play defense – protecting turf, jockeying for position, and waging petty political battles. Success is measured in control-centric tangible terms such as title, jurisdiction, budget size, and number of direct reports. Stagnation and rigidity often set in.
ARTful leaders instead optimize their organizations’ flow of information, resources, energy, and initiative. This is how upstarts such as Airbnb, Uber, and Amazon.com have upended their industries. For example, if Amazon.com ran a disaster response operation, automation and artificial intelligence would help improve logistics. Constant experiments would be run to improve the ease and efficiency with which survivors receive information and assistance. Big data analytics would optimize matching resources with needs and measuring impact. Continuous improvement would be daily practice.
More important than any technology is the ARTful mindset. With confidence in an abundance of situational understanding, expertise, and judgment throughout the enterprise, decisions are pushed downward. Frontline responders are given both the freedom and expectation that they will act with agility and intelligence. Industrial-age leaders were commanders. ARTful leaders are catalysts for collaborative problem solving.
Adaptive capacity is the ability to embrace and thrive amid change, to be nimble and proactive through periods of rapid shifts, technology advances, and other variables both natural and manmade. The constants are mission focus, values, positive behaviors, and continuous learning.
In some ways, the nonresponse world can learn much from disaster managers about adaptability. For example, at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, high degrees of adaptive capacity were observed in the response to superstorm Sandy in 2012 and in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. More recently, in 2017, the fluid coordination between officials and the “Cajun Navy” after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 saved lives.
However, there is still much to be done as policymakers and legislators focus on rigid rules based on prior events rather than forward-looking principles. In major disasters, the myriad agencies and organizations involved must function at a level of complexity beyond the ability to design the system – and they must do so swiftly and in synchrony. Order is more important than control.
Leaders foster order and adaptive capacity by continually asking questions that probe the system to discover what is likely to happen next: “What am I missing?” “Do we think – or do we know?” “What do you see?”
The turbulence of VUCAST makes resilience imperative. There are frequent bumps, shocks, and jolts. Many people think of resilience as the ability to bounce back. However, every disaster leaves its mark. ARTful leaders define resilience as the ability to bounce forward. Such resilience has three equally important yet often disconnected components: psychological, organizational, and structural.
The psychological component is about one’s mental state. After an adverse event, resilience is seen at the first moment people feel hope for the future. It is about cultivating the feeling, “We can do it!”
The organizational aspect involves creating some coherence amid chaos. Here, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and other incident management systems are invaluable because they delineate structures, roles, and responsibilities for responders. There is confidence in the system.
This endorsement includes an important caveat: Attention must be paid to behaviors within the system (see “The Human Factors in Leadership Decision Making”). A robust structure alone is not sufficient.
The structural component involves the manmade components of the system such as water, food, waste, transportation, etc. Here, ARTful leaders acknowledge that critical components of response and recovery exist outside of NIMS. Community groups and self-deployed specialists involve themselves in these efforts. Leaders should work with, not against, these stakeholders with the goal of order beyond control. To foster greater resilience, make it an articulated criteria in policy development and decision making from preparation through recovery.
The third component of ARTful leadership is trust as the foundation of a values-based culture. Uncertainty (the U in VUCAST) can take a psychological toll. People naturally want to hold onto something solid. They look to their leaders to make sense of the situation, find direction, and get assurance that someone “has their backs.” The team may not like every decision, but will be more accepting of them when their leaders are trustworthy and the culture values trust. ARTful leaders ask how they and their teams can be fully trustworthy partners for each stakeholder. The answers then guide both thinking and action.
Transparency, the “T” in VUCAST, looms large. Leaders and their organizations are under constant inspection. Today, the impact of every remark and each choice can spread and be amplified at blazing speed. And those impressions endure. Living and leading as a trusted individual has never been more important – or required more discipline and commitment.
The true north of an ARTful leader is clarity and coherence: of the larger purpose and the current tasks, of the enduring values that will guide the organization, and of the measures for success. With this, an organization can develop the adaptive capacity, resilience, and level of trust that serve as a powerful counter to the roiling forces of VUCAST. The opportunities will also be vast for the leaders who are smart, facile, and ARTful enough to navigate them.
Eric J. McNulty
Eric J. McNulty is associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI). Leonard J. Marcus is the NPLI’s founding co-director. They are two of the co-authors of a new book on leadership: You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most (PublicAffairs, June 2019). The NPLI is a joint program of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government.