Leading on the Edge of Cultural Knowledge in a VUCA World

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected through intricate networks in technology-laden environments, the context in which leaders find themselves has become exponentially more complex. In this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, referred to by Petrie (2011) as VUCA, the increasingly frenetic pace of change and complexity compels those in leadership to pivot in the ways they lead. Moreover, this VUCA ecosystem challenges and disrupts long-held leadership constructs (Brodie, 2019). In this complex and seemingly unstable environment, leaders are hard-pressed to ascertain logical cause-and-effect relationships, creating ambiguity in decision making (Paparone & Topic, 2011). As a result, leaders are no longer able to assess, develop, and implement viable strategies from their past experiences (Brodie, 2019). Leaders pushing out the boundaries of cultural knowledge face new and unique challenges in preparing for this dynamic context. Current and future leaders need an acute awareness of the strategies necessary to redefine and reshape their leadership practices for optimal success within this new reality (Brodie, 2019).

Pressures and demands on leaders require ongoing, new and innovative skills to meet the current and future leadership needs, and the rapid pace of societal change (Dell, 2016). Leaders must not only adapt and react to a rapidly iterating context but also do so with certainty in an uncertain and dynamic environment where predictability is no longer a measure for decision making. Knowing how to manage and foster change, build consensus, develop creativity and innovation, inspire others toward a vision for the future, and lead those spanning multiple generations are keys to fostering success in an intricately networked and complex landscape (DDI, 2015). To harness the opportunities in this technologically-driven context, understanding the strategies of leading in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment is essential. In addition, knowing how to foster and develop those skills in leaders ensures strong future leadership.

This rapidly-iterating business landscape calls for shifts in leadership, to leverage new technologies in tackling the world’s seemingly intractable problems (Bolden & O’Regan, 2016). Social leaders are an integral part of the continued growth of social movements, addressing the collective needs of hunger, poverty, and inequity globally (Brilliant, 2013). Social entrepreneurs are those who identify the challenges in a situation, determine how to address them, organize teams to make it happen, and then lead collective action adapting when and where necessary (Brooks, 2018). As a result, these socially-minded mission-driven leaders transform systems that address social needs and create lasting change (Agarwal, Bersin, Lahiri, Schwartz, & Volini, 2018; Brilliant, 2013; Dacin, Dacin, & Tracey, 2011). Furthermore, social entrepreneurs, as systems leaders, are positioned to potentially exploit this technologically-driven, values-based, interconnected environment utilizing creative destruction (Fraizer, 2009; Senge, Hamilton, & Kania, 2015). Creative destruction is a process within the VUCA ecosystem by which leaders identify, create, and exploit opportunities (Kirzner, 2009). From this vantage point, this research sought to better understand the necessary strategies and practices which aid leaders to effectively capitalize on this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous landscape.

This presentation will discuss the findings of a qualitative research study investigating the best practices and strategies employed by Ashoka Fellow social entrepreneurs who are leading change successfully within this VUCA context. In this phenomenological study, a semi-structured interview protocol was utilized to explore the challenges these social entrepreneurs encountered and overcame while leading at the edge of cultural knowledge within their industry sectors. The results show that contextually intelligent social leaders discover opportunities and use creative destruction to exploit them fostering leadership efficacy in dynamically changing contexts.

Brodie, V. (2020) Leading on the Edge of Cultural Knowledge in a VUCA World. International Leadership Association Global Conference. San Francisco, CA.