How did the Afghan Civil War shape business leadership today?
The United States Army and its leaders were troubled: in 1987, the Cold War imploded in Afghanistan into a theater of disillusionment. Fueled by the opposing USSR’s desire to conquer the Afghan nation and spread communism, Afghanistan was figuratively torn in two and the thirteen-year civil war that ensued claimed more than 1.5 million lives. (1) Despite the death toll, neither the Soviet Army nor the U.S.-backed mujahideen was closer to victory. The situation was so out of control that the U.S. Army had to come up with a new term to describe it: VUCA.
Volatility: a tendency to change quickly and unpredictably.
Uncertainty: doubt, with no certainty.
Complexity: the multiple forces compounding an issue; the confusion inhibiting an organization.
Ambiguity: the loss of reality; disconnection to cause-and-effect.
The volatility in Afghanistan required military leaders to create a shared vision that extended beyond the immediate chaos into the future of what the country could be. During times of uncertainty, leaders sought new levels of understanding of the Afghan people and their needs in order to properly assess the situation and move forward. This meant better listening, empathy, and accepting critical feedback from those most affected by the civil war. The complexity of the war expanded leaders’ horizons by forcing them to rethink aspects they might previously have ignored, like the difficult combat terrain or the large number of civilians in between them and the enemy. Leaders needed to create clarity in the complexity. Lastly, ambiguity forced military leaders to be agile and flexible, so that they could adapt to the unpredictable nature of the changing war. The four facets of VUCA guide military and exponential leaders alike by focusing on traits necessary for success in today’s world.
Leaders can use the VUCA mental model to address the changing landscape of the digital world, and better understand the implications of their decisions. To plan for the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous landscape of the digital world, we adopt a new VUCA mental model — to seek vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. (2)
With the new VUCA mental model, leaders seek:
Vision: establish a clear massive transformative purpose and…
Understanding: invoke continuous communication, empathy, and active listening, with an emphasis on diversity and data to . . .
Clarity: simplify, create expectations, and educate as we seek to . . .
Agility: experiment, fail, learn, and repeat.
Using VUCA to identify and solve a problem is the first step in thinking big and leveraging exponential theory. Innovation, after all, is the process of solving problems and/or incrementally improving what already exists. When there’s a problem, humans innovate. When there is an opportunity to improve something, we innovate. Innovation accelerates life. Innovation demands new leadership. Leaders need to push into the unknown-learning, making mistakes, challenging the status quo, being lean, iterative and agile, creating the needed change in the world. This is an open call for the new VUCA Leadership. Leaders that move at light speed. Leaders that think big. Leaders who can solve big problems.
(1) Noor Ahmad Khalidi, “Afghanistan: Demographic Consequences of War 1978–1987” Central Asian Survey, Vol. 10, №3, (1991): 101–126
(2) Bob Johansen, “Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012)