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Whil CEO Joe Burton: How to Help Your Leadership Succeed in A “VUCA” World

August 30, 2018 / Partners

We’re delighted to share this piece written by Whil CEO Joe Burton, on understanding VUCA and why leadership burns out. 

Harvard Business Review named emotional intelligence (EQ) “the must-have skill for modern leaders.” Why is that?

joe burton whilWe want leaders who are ready.

When we hire leaders, we expect them to show up ready to perform – like Luke Skywalker, prepared for anything. A Jedi Master calm, cool, and collected. Great hair. Ready for battle.

But even the best leaders become tired.

After a few decades of dealing with constant workforce change and disruption (the norm these days), it’s easy for leaders to slip into the dark side without even realizing it. Over time, we wear our stress like a heavy black polyester suit. I’m in a bad mood. I’m hot. I’m tired. I’m wearing black. I’m just looking for an opportunity to take someone out. I live on the Dark Side, man.

After 10 or 20 years it’s not hard to see why so many of us slip into becoming angry, frustrated, and competitive. Living and dying by quarterly numbers catches up to you.

And tired leaders have tired bodies.

“Disease states” like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease result from decades of micro traumas to the body (overeating, binge drinking, smoking, and so on). Years of physical stressors can take a toll. We find the same tends to happen in what we call “career states.”

Most professionals have analogous and ongoing micro traumas in their work. In sales, that may be managing constant rejection. In healthcare, it’s compassion fatigue from dealing with daily patient crises or death. In manufacturing or construction, it may be ongoing pain management, and so on. Years of stressors take their toll on mental wellbeing.

A tipping point moves us to the Dark Side; a line we cross when our coping skills and resilience have worn too thin. It’s often imperceptible because we adapt to stress levels over time, but it happens in every career.

Going to the Dark Side isn’t as fun as it seems.

This happened to me in my early 40s. I had stuff to do. My back hurt. I wasn’t sleeping. After years of the same old routine, I wasn’t trained to care much about others’ feelings along the way. I had numbers to hit. So long as I hit the numbers, no one seemed to care if I was grumpy, disconnected, angry, sarcastic or overly competitive.

As it turns out, the Dark Side isn’t much fun. On the way to and from the Death Star every day, things can get heavy. Leaders tend to feel the weight of their team, projects, decisions, and sometimes of the full company. It can feel lonely. It can also destroy your health. Darth Vader had a wicked case of asthma.

Business leaders are calling this transition VUCA.

With the pace of technology change, it can feel like we’re all on the front lines these days. Leaders are corporate warriors and more companies are using the acronym “VUCA” to describe the global business landscape.

This term was introduced by the U.S. Army War College in the 1990s to describe the more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous world that resulted from the end of the Cold War. VUCA has also found a fitting home in describing the current work experience. Change happens rapidly and on a large scale. The future cannot be predicted with precision. Challenges are complicated by many factors and there’s little clarity on both problems and solutions.

VUCA is neither good or bad. It just is.

So, this is our work life. But a VUCA existence is also impacting our home life in a bigger way with global warming, politics, terrorism, data hacking, identity theft, healthcare concerns, and more. It’s the norm.

It’s hard being a leader, it’s hard being a parent, and it’s hard being a human. Our brains are wired with a negativity bias—a quirky survival characteristic. We’re primed to constantly scan for danger in our surroundings. It’s necessary for survival under harsh conditions but quite a nuisance in contemporary life. It fuels our inner critic. Ongoing stress can result in a growing perception that the demands in life exceed our ability to cope.

If your people feel that the world is changing faster than you can reasonably adapt, you’re not alone.

As a global COO, I recall the onslaught of 200-plus daily email messages coming in from 115 offices around the world. I’d clear them every day and 200 more would be waiting for me the next morning. I remember starting too many days thinking, “You have got to be kidding me.”

Most of us aren’t dealing with just our own companies. We’re operating in ecosystems that include clients, vendors, regulators, and family members who are all operating in their own VUCA worlds that are constantly bumping into ours. Just thinking about it can trigger stress, anxiety, and more.

Here’s how we can help.

It takes a fairly special leader to be resilient through the shifting norms of today’s work environment. Emotional intelligence includes the ability to be mindful, self-aware, regulate your emotions, understand your motivations, be empathetic and compassionate, and develop social skills to connect with others who are also facing constant disruption.

Get ready to put away the light saber. Take a deep breath. And bring these “must have skills” to your employees.

Want to learn more about reducing stress and building resilience? Join us Wednesday, September 19 to learn how Los Alamos National Labs (LANL), the nation’s leading research institution in national security, uses Whil and Virgin Pulse to help 9,000 employees reduce stress, build resilience and improve their sleep and performance.  

 

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