You can plan but you can't schedule


There is much talk of the VUCA world in which leaders have to operate today. The Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous nature of todays’ organisational landscape requires a unique set of leadership skills to ensure organisational success.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss leadership with someone who was dealing with one of the most ambiguous set of circumstances he had encountered in his current role.

Added on 17 March 2015 by Patricia Hind

You can plan but you can’t schedule

Morten is an Expedition Leader with a business that runs cruises to Antarctica. The 60 – 70 passengers for each ship are flown from the Chilean mainland to an island at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. From there passengers board a ship to enjoy five or six days cruising around the beautiful White Continent before being disembarked for the return flight. The usual format for days at sea on the cruise is that passengers go ashore from the ship via zodiac craft for one or two landings each day to enjoy the beauty of the ‘last wilderness on earth’.

The itinerary that the ship follows is flexible, being determined by the wildlife that can be seen – penguins, seals, birds and whales in the main – and the local weather.  The company’s’ small print points out that the weather in the area is variable and prone to sudden change, which may require plans to be altered. 

I was lucky enough to be a passenger on a recent trip that was fog bound for six uncertain days. The first intimation that things were not going to plan was on day four. As passengers were donning their waterproof kit for a short zodiac ride to visit an island rich in wildlife, we were informed that the excursion was to be abandoned as heavy fog was about to descend on the airstrip, which might last three days. The captain decided to abort the cruise to try to get us back to the mainland before the airport closed. In the event, this was unsuccessful and passengers were held on the ship for a further six days.  Passengers and crew had travel plans thwarted and there was great uncertainty about the weather, the revised programme, and when people could resume their onward journeys.

I was able to speak to the expedition leader of the trip about his role as a leader under these extremely unusual circumstances.

He told me that he enjoys his leadership role enormously. He loves the opportunity to experience wildlife at close quarters, loves the Antarctic, and also likes being part of the collaborative decision making processes needed to manage a cruise.  He particularly enjoys the fact that his decisions have a direct impact on the experience his passengers have of the Antarctic – for many of them the trip is fulfilling the ambition of a lifetime.

He believes that there are two critical principles underpinning successful leadership;

  • Respect for all; every individual on the voyages come with different backgrounds, motivations and expectations.  The leader must have fundamental respect for whatever they bring.
  • Honesty; whilst acknowledging that this may not always figure in leadership roles in other walks of life, for an expedition leader, it is fundamental to success.

When it comes to what needs to be done – leadership comes down to the 3 ‘Cs’

  • Communicate – it’s vital to be able - and willing - to communicate clearly, directly and honestly
  • Consider – the consequences of any decision made on all the individuals involved must be considered, whether that’s staff, crew, passengers or the environment.
  • Coordinate – with all involved. Leadership is teamwork. It’s important to make sure all other teams and individuals who will feel the consequences of a decision are informed and know their place in the actions that will follow.

Given the circumstances of our discussion (at 4 am before a potential disembarkation, which actually didn’t happen) I asked if leadership needed to be different when there was a great deal of uncertainty about what was happening. 

The reply was that, in his opinion, leading in ambiguity did not require a different sort or quality of leadership. However, it did require more of those critical 3 c’s outlined above. In particular the amount and degree of communication – the leader may be receiving much more information at times of uncertainty, in which case he needs to pass on much more information. He may be receiving less information that usual, or different types of information but whatever the situation, the information he passes on should mirror that that he receives.

The concept of trust becomes important here – trust in the sources of the information being received, in this case the onshore part of the company and the weather office. Trust in colleagues and direct reports and superiors is only possible if that respect for every individual involved is driven right through the organisation.If the leader is himself being trusted by those people then it is possible to continue to operate successfully.