Leadership and Anxiety–Containment and Metabolism I: Anxiety in a VUCA-Plus Environment

Leadership and Anxiety–Containment and Metabolism I: Anxiety in a VUCA-Plus Environment

Dilemmas are intimately aligned with the challenge of uncertainty in the VUCA model and with the challenge of turbulence in the VUCA-Plus model. We tighten up our policies regarding new product development and find that creativity is dropping off. We increase the price of a service that we deliver in order to increase revenues and find that we are losing customers, thereby losing revenues. Leaders not always recognize a dilemma for what it is. New leaders who have not fully understood or acknowledge the unique nature of VUCA-Plus tend to see problems and dilemmas in a limited or simplistic way and attempt to deal with them as if they are puzzles. When that happens, leaders dig themselves deeper into the complexity, seriousness, and paradox of the “mess.” (Schön, 1983)

At times we find that the issue is a set of nested dilemmas. One set of conflicting priorities exists within another set of conflicting priorities. For instance, we want to pay one employee a bonus, but are concerned that if we do so other employees who find out about it will be resentful and less likely to collaborate with their bonused colleague. This dilemma, in turn, rests inside an even bigger dilemma: we want to increase salary and benefits to all our employees, yet also are trying to keep down costs because the market in which our product is being sold is highly competitive. These are complex dilemmas – not readily solved puzzles. (Bergquist and Mura, 2014)

Living in a VUCA-Plus environment, contemporary leaders are likely to often confront the challenge of working with dilemmas and even nested dilemmas. As in the case of problems, dilemmas can be described as “rugged landscapes.” (Miller and Page, 2007) However, because dilemmas involve multiple elements that are intimately interlinked, they are far more than a cluster or range of mountain peaks of similar size. This type of complex landscape is filled not only with many mountains of about the same height, but also with river valleys, forested plains and many communities (think of the Appalachian Mountains), as compared with a landscape in which one mountain peak dominates or in which a series of mountains dominate. In a complex, rugged landscape, one finds not only many competing viewpoints but also an intricate and often paradoxical interweaving of these differing viewpoints.

It is often even more challenging in a VUCA-Plus environment. As leaders, we are likely to find that we are living and leading not just in a complex rugged landscape—but in what Miller and Page (2007) call a “dancing landscape.” Priorities are not only interconnected, they are constantly shifting, and new alliances between old competing polarities are being forged. Clearly, when a world of complexity collides with a world of uncertainty turbulence and contradiction, the landscape begins to dance, and leaders must learn how to dance. The dilemma-filled challenges and dancing landscapes that 21st Century leaders face in a VUCA-Plus environment make the process of metabolism and the creation and maintenance of a container in which the metabolism takes place very important (perhaps even imperative).


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William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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