Response-able Leadership in VUCA Times

There is so much talk these days about responsible leaders. In some cases, people use the term to mean responsive. In other instances, calls for responsible leaders mean leaders who are accountable for their actions. Each definition is legitimate and each has a place in the leadership lexicon.

But I have always been inspired by the fact that the word “responsible” really refers to the two words “response able.” That is to say, responsible leaders are response-able leaders; those women and men who understand that their job is to respond to the challenges they face now and in the future. As leaders they must be change-ready.

Nowhere is this more important than in the world of 501(c) 3 organizations, what we commonly refer to as nonprofits. There is a well-known acronym originally drawn from the military that aptly describes the world in which today’s nonprofits operate. That acronym is VUCA – Vulnerable, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Contemporary not-for-profit groups, whether educational or healthcare, social service or cultural, operate in a highly vulnerable environment. Funding sources, foundation grants, and government support are often uncertain and can hardly be relied upon from one year to the next. Nonprofits operate in a highly complex world in which the forces of change are often hard to keep up with. And nonprofit leaders are regularly reminded of the ambiguous future they face in view of the changing nature of philanthropic trends and shifts in technology.

The job of a nonprofit leader, therefore, is to respond to each of these rapidly changing conditions without losing sight of the cause to which our organizations and we are dedicated. In this understanding, leadership goes far beyond the management of organizational tasks. The job is not simply to get through the day-to-day checklist but to anticipate the challenges yet to present themselves.

A leader must be able to see around the corner, not just down the street. For this reason, thoughtful leaders are duty-bound to keep abreast of trends, to read and to study, to learn from colleagues and to push themselves.

Great leaders understand that, “There is no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone.” If we aspire to be response-able leaders we cannot be content to know what we know, as if what we know is all there is to be known.

Contemporary leaders who understand that they are operating in VUCA times must never be satisfied with business as usual. As Peter Drucker, the great teacher of leadership, reminds all of us, “The most effective way to manage change successfully is to create it … A leader sees change as an opportunity.” Successful nonprofit leaders, whether volunteers or professionals, always “search for change, respond to it, and exploit it as an opportunity.”

Responsible leaders are more than accountable and responsive. Responsible leaders are response-able. They understand that living in VUCA times demands that they step up to create change-ready enterprises, organizations prepared to respond to the fast-paced world in which contemporary organizations find themselves.

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