Flying solo in a V.U.C.A. environment; does your high potential have the agility?

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Are you asking your high potentials to fly solo to determine their readiness? Do you, yourself, feel you have to fly solo to prove you’re ready?

Speaking from my own experienced I watch others being placed in the position of leadership without clarity of what that would require. I also realize, now, that I myself thought this was the right path to get ahead.

We have all heard it before, our world has become more demands on leaders; especially the higher up in an organization. The term VUCA is often used as shorthand for the rapid development of a situation. There are four types of challenges which require leaders to have the ability to respond distinctly to:

  • V – volatility
  • U – uncertainty
  • C – complexity
  • A – ambiguity

What makes a leader successful when one or more of these challenges exist in making decisions? An experienced leader has the ability to predict the results of their actions and their ability to know enough about the situation to make the right decision. How many people do you know that are successful in their decision making under these circumstances when they are put into new leadership roles? These are skills that result from experience.

Leadership is a learned skill; not book learning, experiential learning. Upon my research the term “learning agility” and “leadership agility” came up often. Learning agility is defined by De Meuse et al. (2010) as:

“The willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently, apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions.” 

As an organization, how do you prepare your high potential or emerging leader to move from a directed position into a leadership role that requires them to succeed in a new and often unpredictable situation without direction? One approach is to monitor a person in a new situation to see how they handle success and failure. Handling success or failure and how they learn from the experience. This is “leadership agility”.

“…the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances”

Are your high potentials, placed on an assignment or a project, where they are being directed and managed with an increased pressure to perform? Or are you allowing for the individual to experience their new situation? Learning by “flying solo” so to speak, rather than push to perform under pressure. Pressure or induced stress is not the indicator of a potentially successful leader.

During my decades in the corporate world, I was often frustrated by new leaders coming in and requiring my team and me to do things “differently”. Many times these were not new ways of approaching a task or challenge, they were often tried and failed ways.

Was this upper management letting them fly solo? This illuminates another point of learning agility.

Learning agility has characteristics, which can be developed:

  • Flexibility – Willingness to try new things;
  • Speed – Rapidly grasping new ideas;
  • Experimenting – Testing out new ideas;
  • Performance Risk Taking – Taking on challenges;
  • Interpersonal Risk Taking – Asking others for help;
  • Collaborating – Leveraging the skills of others;
  • Information Gathering – Increasing your knowledge;
  • Feedback Seeking – Asking for feedback; and
  • Reflecting – Taking time to reflect on your effectiveness.

The new leader has to learn from experience, however, they don’t need to fly solo! Upper management can leave them to experience the new situation. That doesn’t mean a leader succeeds all on their own.

Looking back, I wish I was more patient with a new leader “learning” the skills of leadership. My frustration was the leader did not bother to listen to another’s experience regardless of the person’s position. This was a clear sign of a lack of learning agility. In the list above, the bolded items were often missing in my situation.

It is clear that you cannot prepare for what it means to be a leader, you have to experience it. As an emerging leader, you must get out of your comfort zones or you will cease to grow intellectually and behaviorally. This can easily be corrected through awareness of what needs to be developed.

This means you should not try to fly solo. Ask for help while you experience how your skills and decision making can evolve with experience. Stepping into becoming a successful leader will require you to continuously experience new circumstances. Combine this with the willingness to engage with others to gain more insights. There is support available to get you through the discomfort of learning to work in an ever-changing environment. If you struggle with the concepts of learning agility or need someone to help you foster your development engage a credentialed coach.