Friday, September 11th, 2020
In August 2020, the media in the UK was filled with headlines about government ‘U-Turns’.
Take this article from Policito.eu: 8 U-Turns in 8-Month’s from Boris Johnson’s government. Or this from LBC: The Government’s U-Turns (government’s missed targets, broken promises). Or this from The Independent: Boris Johnson’s coronavirus U-turns: A timeline of government indecision during the pandemic.
When the government announced that secondary school children would not, after all, need to wear face-masks to school: ‘it sparked anger from backbench Conservatives, with Tory MP Huw Merriman saying he was “sick and tired” of seeing advice constantly changing.’ (The Independent, Wednesday 26 August 2020).
‘Indecision.’ ‘Missed targets’. ‘Broken promises’. These are hard judgements!
These judgements reveal a particular worldview, and a particular model of leadership.
From this worldview, certainty is a sign of strength. Strength is the core of leadership. And a lack of certainty is therefore a sign of leadership incompetence and indecision.
Yes, perhaps this was how we used to see the world, back in the 1990s. But in 2020, this worldview is outdated and misguided.
I’m not commenting on the politics or the decisions themselves. This is not an article about Boris Johnson’s government. Each of us will make our own judgements on his leadership and choices, based on our values and priorities. This article is about the language of ‘U-Turns’, and the different mindsets from which we choose to view changes in strategic direction.
For years now, businesses have talked about VUCA: the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous reality we find ourselves in. The acronym VUCA was first used in 1987 in a military context, and has been part of leadership language since 2002 (Wikipedia). Way back in 2014, HBR published an article: ‘What VUCA really means for you.’
So VUCA has been part of our language for some decades. But in my experience of working with leaders and businesses in change, it’s not yet in mainstream culture. We are still only just beginning to learn how to navigate and thrive in a VUCA world.
What VUCA means for you? In my experience, both personally and as a coach guiding people through change, it means discomfort. Uncertainty. A continual, courageous voyage into the unknown. Fear. Resistance. And beyond all that…. possibility. Vitality. New ways of seeing things, new ways of doing things bringing new results.
Coronavirus transplanted us all into a complex, changing world (if we weren’t already there). New information is emerging about how the virus spreads. So is it really surprising that the advice on how to stop it spreading is changing too?
Isn’t it possible that the big institutions – government included – are needing to change course faster, in a faster changing world? If this country were a start-up, we’d probably be talking about ‘pivoting’. We’d be praising its leaders and culture for being ‘agile’ and ‘adaptive’.
And yes, probably leaders are making mistakes, because the terrain is new and unfamiliar. But doesn’t changing their minds show they are willing to acknowledge those mistakes, and correct them?
And isn’t that a good thing?
The media and some politicians might be anti-U-turn, but it turns out British people are more understanding.
A You Gov poll in May 2020 showed 49% of British people believe: ‘Government U-turns are normally a good sign – showing they are willing to listen and change their minds when people complain or situations change.’ That’s up from 41% back in November 2019. For young people, age 18-24, the change is even more dramatic: up 17% (!) from 27% to 44%. Meanwhile, only 23% of people say: ‘Government U-turns are normally a bad sign – showing they are incompetent, weak, or have not thought their policies through properly in advance.’ That’s down from 26% in November 2019.
Perhaps we are changing as a nation? Perhaps this pandemic is initiating us into a new worldview? Maybe we are gaining a new mindset? A new way of being in the world. Perhaps we are learning to tolerate uncertainty, to accept the fluidity and change as we navigate the unknown?
Change is rarely easy or comfortable. But if we can learn this new mindset – a mindset of adaptability and responsiveness – and if we can apply that to our own lives, our own work… imagine. What might be possible?