I was asked to speak recently at an executive seminar on the human cost of VUCA and the role of sanctuary in human formation. The session preceding my own, was a presentation by a leading executive from a major global energy company. The presentation focused on the game-changing nature of the industry today and the many challenges the company faces in staying competitive in a fast changing world. The key word in the presentation was transformation.
Everyone in the room recognised the landscape that was being described. Which business is not defining its territory today as “disruptive”? Which business is not being pushed to “simplify its portfolio,” improve efficiencies, and pave the way to a new and yet unimaginable future all within the context of an unprecedented digital transformation?
The corporate response in this case was typical of any business driven by these powerful forces; being a matter of survival, ultimately any action becomes a question of fight, flight or freeze. Since flight and freeze are synonymous with death, the message was clear and predictable; we must fight. In corporate language this meant simplify and accelerate; become more agile and adapt more quickly. To achieve this the company must “listen better” to stakeholders, simplify the portfolio, accelerate innovation, support necessary changes through every ecosystem both internal and external, and being willing to re-invent their own identity – all the time.
This is a perfect description of the business world described today by the acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) and led to a discussion involving another word becoming commonplace alongside transformation – that word is overwhelm.
The Q&A that followed the session was interesting. It was quite clear that the future life of this large and influential multi-national was genuinely at stake in a rapidly changing world. “If we do nothing,” the presenter said, “We will make money over the next 3 to 5 years…and then we’ll be dead.” It seems we are living in end-game times and how we relate to that reality, how we bring our attention to it has a lot to do with the way things will probably play out. Living in a VUCA world, in this kind of context, is like holding a tiger by the tail.
“Do we have the answers?” asked the presenter rhetorically. “No, we don’t.”
How to Move Beyond Joyless Urgency?
“The spirit of the times,” observes the writer Marilynne Robinson in her essay on humanism, “is one of joyless urgency.”
“Many of us,” she continues, “are preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own….that are…preparation for economic servitude… We are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind and more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever we think is pursuing us.”
I think the sense of pervasive threat described by Robinson comes close to defining a powerful hidden drive behind our current rendering of VUCA and goes far to explain the way in which it seems to cause so many people to suffer personally and professionally in a world that is incessantly driven by the demands that VUCA makes.
As much as VUCA claims to be about opportunity, innovation and possibility, it is, at worst about survival and fear; the grinding sense of ever-present, vague, unaccountable, undefinable threat. It is the relentless pursuit of and running from something only ever half-seen that so exhausts the spirit and undermines any possibility of a collective effort that might imagine a more respectful workplace and dignified concept of work for the 21st century.
At heart, the concerns of each executive in the group were the same that day. In terms of business they talked off the record about the personal human impact of endless change, the effects on their families, what VUCA meant as a reflection on our shared humanity.
The central and abiding question asked of the presenter at the end of his presentation was: with all this change—how do you value your people? We picked that theme up in our session with the observation that we value others to the degree that we can value ourselves. The value we place on ourselves is evidenced by the practices we engage in to live our lives faithfully and purposefully, individually and in the communities in which we live and work. The essential question really is something more like:
What does the way you live your life tell you about how you value yourself, about your integrity, about what matters most to you?
Walking the Day after Brexit
In June I went walking in the mountains in Wales with my partner. It was the day after Brexit and the world—so it seemed—was noisy, frightened, angry and chaotic. Part of the walk took us on a steep climb up the side of a mountain called Garn Wen into ancient woodland to a holy well. The well itself is pre-Christian and dedicated to Aeron, a mythical personage whose story has long been lost in the mists of time. It was a slow, steep, peaceful climb that followed the track of a stream as it cut its way down through the hillside from the mountain above us. The entrance to the woodland was guarded by a stand of purple monkshood, a tall, beautiful, highly poisonous and quite rare wild flower that gave the whole place a feeling of mystery.
Cairn on Garn Wen. Photo by George Tod (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.
We eventually reached the well itself, which was small but wonderfully preserved—a result it seemed to me—of simple disregard over time. It was a place both insignificant and yet highly charged all at once. Stone slabs a few feet across marked the roof and sides of the well itself whose water was clean, cold, refreshing and absolutely still. Time and space shifts in such places; one thinks of Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going”:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
A serious house on serious earth indeed.
Larkin tells us that;
“… someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in”
I think most of us at one time or another are that someone, who, perhaps surprising themselves, feels called to be more serious. It is the purpose of small places such as the holy well to mark out space and time sufficient to this calling.
It’s an interesting paradox that seemed very apparent that morning by the well that the world can be both volatile and still, complex and simple, uncertain and trustworthy in its presence, ambiguous yet clear in the same moment. Everything was indeed changing; the water quickly, the sunlight quickly too, the trees and rocks very slowly but nonetheless changing—and yet there was such a stillness in the place that I could not discount it. And more importantly the feeling it left me with, call it calm, peace, stillness, presence—but something that spoke quite clearly to me in the depths of what I will call my soul.
I could feel the long history that was gathered in this simple place—that was buried here and ran before me into an uncertain future, filled as it was outside this valley by the shock waves of Brexit. Actually Brexit; the dynamic ebb and flow of life was a part of this too but this was a different space designed for other kinds of inquiry though not intolerant to the world or dismissive of it. This place was set aside to allow for our mysterious need for quietude, to listen deeply, to acknowledge, to commemorate, the intelligence of the feeling heart. The place was important for all those reasons and more.
Living a new story
The issue with our current rendering of VUCA—what makes it such a contributor to the joyless urgency of our times—is that it cannot account for or accommodate my experience at the well. VUCA disregards moments like this at the well or marks it out as irrelevant in the world of work and in the work of human becoming and in so failing, it casts out so much of what allows me to live well and make sense of a changing world. I seek both joy and urgency as one who participates in both its solid realities and its mysterious ebb and flow.
Whilst VUCA might well be a description of naturally arising phenomena—everything flows, said Hereclitus—it becomes a source of suffering because it lacks a compensatory story that can synthesise and reconcile the objective experience of volatility, complexity and so forth with our subjective experience of those conditions and our need to humanise our experience. When our suffering is unmet and indeed amplified, it shows its face as any number of forms of violence. It it is this subtle and sometimes explicit violence that so marks the business environment today.
If VUCA is to be embraced for the unintended gifts it brings, we need a fundamental shift in perspective that accounts for the whole of human experience including the need for ‘serious time’ that actually makes sense and gives purpose to our days.
Work matters in many ways beyond the simple fact of “having work to do.” Vocation and calling are both related to work, which is an expression of the ceaseless and shared movement we feel in life for exploration and integration. Given its pervasive presence in the world, given our apparent desire to contribute, to be active and productive, we might conclude that work should be able to speak to our shared striving for self-realization in ways that it simply cannot now.
Surely one possibility for the 21st century is a workplace that can add up to more than work as economic servitude. For this we need to consider what the psychologist Karen Horney means when she offers us the idea of a “morality of evolution.” It might be that a morality of evolution, one that can account for balanced growth in a broader sense than is currently granted, could inform us towards an understanding of economics that would be more sustainable for the future of life.
A sacred world
To humanise the workplace we might begin by re-imagining what is sacred in the world and what we name otherwise. We begin of course, with ourselves and the ground we stand on. If there are, as the poet Wendell Berry suggests at the start of this piece, no unsacred places, then it’s possible that everything that is—is in some very real sense—sacred, that is to say, worthy of our attention, our gratitude, our reverence and our love. What is not sacred is, according to the poet, only that which we ourselves have desecrated, through ignorance, misuse, lack of care, urgency, forgetfulness. It is a strange and uniquely human gift that we can act in ways that desecrate what is inherently sacred. No other creature wields this kind of power, nor does any other creature have the capacity if it so chooses to be astonished, left speechless and transformed by the innate sacredness and beauty of life.
The work of building our understanding the world, of discovering the truth of things is a platform that science and religion share when they are at their best. The physicist Wolfgang Pauli once commented that
“The ambition of overcoming opposites, including a synthesis embracing both rational understanding and the mystical experience of unity, is the mythos, spoken or unspoken, of our present day and age.”
This is, I believe, the real gift that VUCA offers us—an appreciation of the need for a new synthesis of understanding; precisely what Pauli intuited from his work as a quantum scientist. The mythos of our times is much more complex and interesting than a bland story of urgency and blind intensity, but it requires us to take the implication of words like volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity more seriously if we are to shift our current compass bearing and save ourselves.
Possibility lies at the edge of the known but it must be met with a degree of maturity that currently defies us. Life’s mystery sits at the heart of all serious study, be it scientific, philosophical or religious. Sir Arthur Eddington, the physicist and mathematician (best known for his exploration of the theory of General Relativity which Einstein called ‘the finest presentation of the subject in any language) is close to the mystics when he says quite simply, “something unknown is doing we don’t know what.”
This seems an accurate description of business life today and of VUCA particularly and it requires a proper response that takes the well-being of those that serve business seriously. The hope I think, lies in our continuing capacity for inquiry, our endless call to the cycles of exploration and integration; a willingness to ask questions of ourselves and one another, some of which will have no answer.
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“What is the ultimate truth about ourselves?” asks Eddington. “‘Various answers suggest themselves but there is one elementary inescapable answer; we are that which asks the question. Whatever else there may be in our nature, responsibility towards truth is one of its attributes. This side of our nature is aloof from the scrutiny of the physicist. Concern with truth is one of those things which make up the spiritual nature of Man.”
We have yet to get to the truth of what VUCA means in our modern context. We see and articulate more often than not its shadow and misread its principles thereby creating suffering where we could do so much more. The mythos of our times is one of synthesis not division, the unification of our scientific and religious sensibilities towards a private and shared philosophy that is fundamentally humanistic and indeed, as the poet Wendell Berry imagines it, sacred.
VUCA as much as anything, gives us the opportunity to re-imagine our working lives together in ways that honour both our rational intellect and the artistic passion which sits at the heart of that world and of our creative potential. It is true enough that none of us individually know how to evoke the change that we need to make but that we commit to collaborate and try to find a way forward is a fundamental expression of the better sides of our nature, part of the morality of evolution in which each of us takes active part.
Nick Ross, BA, FRSA, has been a leadership trainer and personal development coach for over 20 years and he is a facilitator in preparation for the Center for Courage & Renewal, as well as an alumni of the Courage & Renewal Academy for Leaders. Coming from a professional background in addictions therapy his work today includes delivery of extensive leadership development programs and executive coaching to global companies and senior leaders. Nick is the Director of a different drum, whose work he summarises as ‘helping others to take the next step’. As a writer, poet and lover of the outdoors Nick brings his love of the arts and nature to his work with executives and senior teams to address and reflect on the place of soul in leadership and the role of sanctuary in supporting healthy human development. You can learn more about Nick here.