Future Generations And New Challenges: Leadership In Times Of The VUCA World
Abstract: In the dynamically changing VUCA (a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world of the 21st century, military leadership faces numerous challenges, especially in its teaching, development, and its application. While, on the one hand, subsequent generations make different demands towards armed forces, the constant guarantee of personal and material operational readiness is becoming increasingly more important. Both aspects, the needs of new generations on the one hand and military leadership on the other, sometimes collide strongly. This is why future military leaders must acquire, possess and develop skills and competences to be able to meet the challenges of the VUCA world.
Problem statement: How can military leadership skills and competences be optimized in order to meet the challenges of the VUCA world while fulfilling the requirements of personal operational readiness in the future?
Bottom-line-up-front: Ensuring military operational readiness is a central military leadership task. Therefore, military leadership skills and competences are becoming more and more important. They must be developed in a holistic and goal-oriented manner, with the main focus on problem-solving skills.
So what?: Developing leadership skills and accompanying skills must be holistic and future-oriented. Target-oriented and in line with military requirements, training institutions must prepare future leaders for the upcoming tasks in the dynamically changing VUCA world.
Leadership and New Challenges
Armed forces are confronted with increasing challenges. Conflicts arise more frequently, and globalization has led to an increasing interconnectedness of different states and coalitions. Those challenges are often characterized as a result of the dynamically changing VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). Crises, areas of tension, and conflicts can emerge. Wars such as Russia's attack on Ukraine in February 2022 and terrorism and internal conflicts require an ever-increasing goal- and mission-oriented approach. That’s why flexibility and adaptability are becoming increasingly important and are of utmost necessity. To meet these challenges, armed forces must guarantee personnel and material readiness at all times, and if “readiness suffers, the risks to forces increase.” The guarantee of personnel readiness is almost always a central leadership task. Personnel readiness can be achieved by successful personnel management (personnel planning, personnel recruiting, personnel administration, and personnel development) and military leaders who can successfully lead their personnel in the challenging environment of the VUCA world.
Crises, areas of tension, and conflicts can emerge. Wars such as Russia's attack on Ukraine in February 2022 and terrorism and internal conflicts require an ever-increasing goal- and mission-oriented approach. That’s why flexibility and adaptability are becoming increasingly important and are of utmost necessity.
For this reason, military leadership training is essential. Additionally, future personnel have different demands on their employer than those of previous generations. Generation Z is “radically different than [older generations], this generation has an entirely unique perspective on careers.”
That’s why considering the potential views, needs, and thought patterns of upcoming generations will be crucial when establishing personnel readiness. Generation Z, for example, tends to value a strict separation of professional and private areas of their life and is rather critical of flexibility that a possible employer requires. Those viewpoints can strongly collide with the requirements of the armed forces, the need for personnel commitment, and personnel readiness. That’s why the areas of tension between the challenges of the VUCA world and the individual needs of new generations must be adequately addressed during military leadership training.
Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous
A strict separation of professional and private areas of life cannot always be guaranteed, since military missions often take place abroad. Military missions are mostly conducted in partnership with other states to “offset the operational burden of an intervention”, lower costs, and create political legitimation. In Romania, the German Armed Forces are supporting with the weapon system Eurofighter Typhoon as part of the NATO enhanced Air Policing South (eAPS) mission. In Slovakia, the German Armed Forces are supporting colleagues with the weapon system PATRIOT as part of a so-called recognized mission contribution to NATO alliance defence., Serving abroad is a challenge for individuals and their families. It is also a big challenge for future generations that tend to reject the necessity of this military need. This, of course, does not apply to every representative of Generation Z, but statistically, it applies to the majority. Another example of the importance of personnel readiness is the NATO Response Force (NRF), which serves as NATO’s quick intervention force.
Serving abroad is a challenge for individuals and their families. It is also a big challenge for future generations that tend to reject the necessity of this military need.
In June 2022, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg announced that the NRF would increase to over 300,000 soldiers. In principle, the NRF can be deployed within 5 to 30 days and should therefore be highly available. Part of the NRF is the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a rapidly deployable task force. NATO set up the VJTF in 2014 after the Crimean crisis. The VJTF can be deployed within a few days. This places extremely high demands on the armed forces and their military leaders, who are responsible for fulfilling their unit’s mission. To guarantee personnel readiness, military leaders must, therefore, "create meaning (...) and convey identification.” They must ensure personnel readiness within the shortest possible time.
Considering the needs of the following generations is difficult for military leaders. They have to ensure that their personnel meets the growing demands of operational readiness. Military leaders have to act as an example of individual commitment. They must offer orientation and structure through their leadership. Clear cause-effect relationships tend to decrease in a highly complex world, which is why it becomes more difficult, if not impossible, to predict the effects of causes. Due to the complexity, systems and organizations such as the armed forces can only be successful if all system members focus on the same goal. This requires great leadership skills, especially since the values and needs of Generations Y and Z are contrary to the demands of the VUCA world on armed forces.
The classification of the world as a VUCA world, not only from a military perspective, creates numerous challenges. Armed forces in the 21st century must face these challenges to be able to fulfil their respective mission. Especially during military leadership training, skills can be developed to help meet those challenges.
The classification of the world as a VUCA world, not only from a military perspective, creates numerous challenges. Armed forces in the 21st century must face these challenges to be able to fulfil their respective mission.
Volatility characterizes dynamic changes over a certain period. Unforeseen, dynamic events can occur within a very short time frame, which might have a global impact. Russia's war against Ukraine in 2022 can be defined as an example of volatility. To avoid being overwhelmed by unpredictable dynamic events, military leaders need to be aware of the magnitude of volatility. Societies and generations can quickly change their perception and value system. Military leaders must therefore create more meaning and convey identification with the assignment. It is impossible to fully reduce the effects of a volatile world, but leaders can prepare their units for different situations.
Uncertainty characterizes the unpredictability of events. Since the world is becoming more and more interconnected and values and ideologies do not only occur in specific areas, the world can no longer be strictly divided into different systems of values and ideologies. A possible opponent is rarely clearly definable. Globalization makes the world increasingly interconnected. Science, business, and societies are worldwide exchanging ideas, goods, and people. This can cause uncertainty and lead to insecurity in societies. Information gathering will become more important if it is not certain how the environment will be. That’s why leaders must lead with a holistic approach, openness to information, and strong communication skills.
The complexity of the VUCA world includes several factors. Complexity consists of globalization, digitalization, and ever-increasing dependencies. Those dependencies of different systems have resulted in more and more aspects that have an immediate and direct impact on our everyday lives. This also has a major impact on military service. Whether it is while handling increasingly complex weapon systems or the deployment of personnel to distant areas of operation. Complexity can be met with problem-solving procedures.
The ambiguity of situations, information, or events can make it difficult for people to orientate themselves in the environment. The questions of “why” and “how” are becoming more important. The ambiguity and lack of orientation can be countered by giving orientation, experimenting more, and allowing mistakes. In a military context, this means that military leaders must be trained in a positive failure culture. This requires an organizational culture in which open dialogue is valued, and the open search for solutions is at the forefront of everyday action. A positive and future-oriented organizational culture is the basis for leaders to become successful. A positive organizational culture can lead to “high commitment and trust.” Those factors are mandatory when working with Generation Y and Z.
Values and Standards
As role models, military leaders must live the values and standards of the organizational culture. They must orient their behaviour and activities towards these values. The leadership philosophy based on this should include an honest and familiar exchange between military leaders and their personnel. The higher the hierarchy, the more responsibility leaders bear for the results and also for their personnel. Personnel needs to develop a will of commitment. They need to act more independently and self-organized but always stay aligned with the values and rules communicated by the leader and orientated towards the sense of the mission. However, this begins with training military leaders, who should be holistically trained and orientated towards problem-solving since all factors of the VUCA world impact operational readiness. Ensuring operational readiness and bearing responsibility for results is a leadership task that those in charge must fulfil. Especially the volatility of the VUCA world and the need to prepare resources for potential future events is a major challenge for the armed forces. This often contrasts the personal needs, values , and demands of people from the following generations.
The leadership philosophy based on this should include an honest and familiar exchange between military leaders and their personnel. The higher the hierarchy, the more responsibility leaders bear for the results and also for their personnel.
Organizations and companies are increasingly faced with the challenge of bringing together different generations. The individual generations differ greatly in their values, plans, and needs. In particular, institutions and organizations have to change their thinking due to the years of strict regulation in professional life and the breaking up of these structures due to the challenges of the VUCA world.
In the context of the question, a proper target group classification makes sense. The unambiguous definition of specific peer groups in generations is therefore indispensable. Organizations, companies, and armed forces must deal with the needs, values, and respect of different generations to fulfil recruitment goals. Especially professional armies, which have been struggling with recruitment problems for years, have to focus on the needs of their specific target groups. In June 2022, the German Armed Forces had as many employees as in September 2019, even though the challenges have increased. To deal with this and to make civil service more attractive, armed forces must reach out to the next generations. This includes various approaches, some of which have already been implemented, e.g., enabling flexible, mobile working, knowledge transfer, and further training opportunities that can ensure continuous skills development in the sense of lifelong learning. Western armed forces do not take fundamentally different approaches in this regard. In 2016, the German Armed Forces already committed to a personnel strategy that is explicitly intended to address upcoming generations that have not yet entered the labour market.
Generations comprise specific age cohorts that share aspects such as birth periods, defining social and historical events, and, therefore, attitudes and identities. Even though all individuals within a generation have different individual characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, they can be grouped based on overarching aspects. Generations cannot always be clearly distinguished from one another; their transitions are fluid. It is worth taking a look at those generations that are of working age or are entering the working age: The “Baby Boomer” generation (1956 - 1964), Generation X (1965 - 1979), Generation Y (1980 - 1993) and Generation Z (1994 - 2000).
Generations comprise specific age cohorts that share aspects such as birth periods, defining social and historical events, and, therefore, attitudes and identities. Even though all individuals within a generation have different individual characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, they can be grouped based on overarching aspects.
The people who belong to the "Baby Boomer" generation were born after Second World War. Rising birth rates significantly characterised these times. This generation grew up with a very large number of people of the same age and in a relatively protected environment. To this day, they represent the majority; they dominate the public world as well as the working and professional world. Due to the large cohort size, competitive behaviour is extremely pronounced in this generation. People of the "Baby Boomer" generation are nevertheless considered to be strongly team-oriented and particularly willing to perform.
Generation X represents the group of people born between 1965 and 1979. On the one hand, these people were not directly affected by the consequences of the Second World War. Still, they had less prosperity, less economic security, and higher unemployment. In times of slowing economic growth, companies cut jobs and reduced governmental benefits. This led to a great sense of insecurity. Therefore, the people of Generation X are considered more insecure, cautious, and reserved than those of the generations before them. The economic crises in the 1980s and 1990s, in particular, accelerated these attitudes.
The following Generations Y and Z, people born from 1980 to 1993 and 1994 to 2000, represent the generations that have entered or are about to enter the working world. Organizations have to deal with recruiting these people because they can be tied to the organization for a longer period due to their less advanced age.
In Germany, the third largest generation is Generation Y. General demands and economic, political, and social expectations of this generation have increased. In contrast, perceived global security has decreased, and events such as 9/11 and the constant and present threat of global terrorism have created strong insecurity. In addition, the economic pressure on people of Generation Y, who have grown up during China’s economic boom, is increasing. Moreover, Generation Y tends to be increasingly skeptical and uncertain since organisations and institutions have been involved in scandals or triggered financial crises. Events such as the nuclear disaster in Fukushima have also contributed to this sense of insecurity. That’s why Generation Y is considered to be strongly focused on the present; they perceive the future as uncertain. They are considered to be more ego-centred, they tend to give priority to the realisation of individual needs over community needs and feel intense frustration that partly unrealistic expectations are placed on them and cannot be met. They want a job that gives them free space for themselves and their private life.
The economic pressure on people of Generation Y, who have grown up during China’s economic boom, is increasing. Moreover, Generation Y tends to be increasingly skeptical and uncertain since organisations and institutions have been involved in scandals or triggered financial crises.
That’s why Generation Y people are similar to those who belong to Generation Z. They were born between 1994 and 2001. Understanding this generation's needs and value system is essential for the sustainability and personnel operational readiness of armed forces. They especially need to recruit people of this generation. Their representatives have not yet all arrived on the labour market. Due to advanced digitalisation and globalisation, people from Generation Z have increased contact with previous generations and try to learn from them, their mistakes, and their thought patterns. Basically, the framework conditions in which people of Generation Y and Generation Z have grown up and are growing up are the same.
Nevertheless, people of Generation Z have adapted differently to their environment. They have understood that the wishes of generation Y could not all be fulfilled. They perceive their environment more realistically and are more cautious. They tend to worry about their future and try to find self-realisation even within a limited framework. They want to be integrated into a community that offers them security and is non-volatile. People of Generation Z are also considered to be much more reserved. They are more concerned about the short-term future and set less exaggerated goals for themselves. People of Generation Z make a clear and sharp distinction between their private and professional worlds. They neither want to be available all the time nor their time to be dominated by professional activity. The expectations of their career are reserved. They express a great desire for job security and want much time for their own private life. They also use these characteristics to decide on an employer. In the 21st century, armed forces must increasingly address the wishes, needs, and values of people from Generation Y and Generation Z to be able to guarantee personnel readiness in the long term. However, this does not only mean that armed forces must be attractive enough as an employer for these people but also that greater emphasis is placed on how people of Generation Y and Z think, act, what values and views they hold and how they can be led efficiently. If people of Generation Y and Z are to be led in a mission-oriented way, military leaders must understand their needs and how they think. This can be trained in military leadership training.
The aforementioned challenges of Generations Y and Z can only be met by offering orientation. One way to respond to the perceived insecurity of Generation Y and Z is through sense-making. The big challenge, however, is that military leaders are also exposed to the external influences of the VUCA world. Therefore, leadership training must be intensively oriented towards the VUCA world's influences and one's own value systems and needs. Military training teaches future leaders how to respond adequately to the increasing demands placed on them. This is the basis for successfully leading people of Generation Y and Z.
The aforementioned challenges of Generations Y and Z can only be met by offering orientation. One way to respond to the perceived insecurity of Generation Y and Z is through sense-making.
Leadership itself fulfils different functions - a locomotion function and a cohesion function. On the one hand, the fulfilment of the mission and the achievement of objectives are guaranteed by the leadership of the personnel. On the other hand, social cohesion is ensured by proper leadership. Due to the extensive needs of Generations Y and Z, both functions are becoming increasingly important for successful leadership. Therefore, lifelong learning and developing leadership skills are inextricably linked. It is as essential for leaders to understand how a team can work together in the best possible way. Differences between the generations have the potential for conflict. Especially when young military leaders have to lead a team of people from different generations. They should show authentic respect for the accomplishments of more experienced personnel but also need to be perceived as competent leader and should not patronize them. Young leaders should also reveal what their weaknesses are, but in a self-confident manner. Strong communication skills are, therefore, mandatory to be perceived as an authentic leader.
Moreover, the requirements of the VUCA world create certain leadership tasks that have to be done by leaders:
Establish a stronger clarity of purpose: To secure mission fulfilment, the personnel should have limited freedoms and act partly on their own responsibility. Accordingly, the mission must be clearly formulated and clearly defined goals must be set.
Convey meaning: Conveying the meaning and creating a strong identification for the mission are central leadership tasks. Those tasks become increasingly important and require an ever-increasing communication skills by leaders.
Leadership competence is improved by developing specific competencies. These include professional competence, methodological competence, social competence, self-competence, and numerous other areas, such as a distinctive strategic competence or implementation-oriented competence, which includes a strong personal decision-making ability and the ability to think and act in a results-oriented manner. Due to the individual needs of Generations Y and Z, social competences, in particular, have gained importance over purely professional competences in recent years. Since emotions can motivate, inspire and convince, the development of emotional intelligence is essential for military leaders in the 21st century. Emotional intelligence is formed through empathy, self-leadership, self-control, and pronounced self-reflection. Emotional intelligence can only be developed through constant practice. Communication and contact between military leaders and their personnel are therefore crucial. Self-reflection is essential insofar as it alone determines whether lessons are learned from mistakes made and what kind of experience is gained from them. Mistakes and mis-behaviour should always be reflected upon. The willingness to take responsibility for oneself plays a significant role. The experience gained must be transformed into knowledge and ultimately applied on-the-job. In this way, existing knowledge can be linked with new knowledge, and it is possible to react appropriately to a volatile and rapidly changing environment.
Furthermore, one's own communication competence is a guiding principle for leadership success. As a leader, various aspects need to be taken into account here: Active listening and asking open questions, removing doubts, giving open feedback, and feedback that is appropriate and always linked to a learning aspect. Leaders also need to be perceived not only as a superior but also as a coach; they need to develop their personnel’s competences actively. Continuous feedback and reflection on work results and mission accomplishment can develop various competencies among subordinate personnel. Intensive coaching of personnel is therefore indispensable for military leaders. Developing competencies can only be done through comprehensive and holistic training, which is supported as much as possible by on-the-job learning situations.
Leadership competence is improved by developing specific competencies. These include professional competence, methodological competence, social competence, self-competence, and numerous other areas, such as a distinctive strategic competence or implementation-oriented competence, which includes a strong personal decision-making ability and the ability to think and act in a results-oriented manner.
However, a well-developed leadership competence is no longer sufficient to prepare military leaders for most challenges. Developing competencies that provide structure and security in an uncertain environment must be strongly focused. The demands and burdens on military leaders have increased significantly in recent decades. In particular, military leaders of middle management are exposed to higher stress and higher requirements. Military middle management leaders are subordinate to their executive leaders but are also responsible for their personnel and fulfilling the mission. Their executive leaders, e.g., their commanders, usually formulated that mission. The external influences that place the VUCA world on all people make it more and more difficult for leaders to fulfil their mission. They frequently have to make faster operational decisions and must ensure that these are implemented. Pronounced time pressure and action leave little time for reflection or considering different courses of action. Due to influences caused by the VUCA world, middle management leaders often consider those challenges “unrealistic.” Due to the manifold challenges and dynamically occurring situations, military leaders are exposed to enormously high work pressure. For them, it is unusual to "quit" work at a certain time of day. They are available early in the morning, ensure mission fulfilment, and serve as contact persons for their personnel after duty hours. They must also be accountable to upstream and downstream hierarchical levels for their decisions made. That is less and less attractive for people from Generation Y and Z; only 37% aim for a leadership role.
Developing competencies that provide structure and security in an uncertain environment must be strongly focused. The demands and burdens on military leaders have increased significantly in recent decades.
Therefore, personal resilience, which means a high level of mental elasticity and flexibility, must be developed as basic competence. It is necessary to be able to think and act clearly and in a mission-orientated manner in an uncertain environment. Personal resilience is also necessary to be perceived as a role model. A pronounced resilience is, therefore, not only indispensable for military leaders but is also instrumental in providing orientation. Resilience also counteracts the generational conflict of Generation Y and Z, who want a stronger and stricter separation of the professional and private worlds from their employer. Building and developing strong resilience can serve as a measure to counteract this. This happens because resilience can guarantee the individual's ability to function despite challenges and adversely affecting circumstances. Resilience can be built up during military training. For its comprehensive development, on-the-job measures are particularly necessary. These can be training exercises but also the creation of psychological stress in challenging situations. On the other hand, organizational framework conditions should promote resilience. Resilience is a core competence to maintain and promote mental health; therefore, it is indispensable for personnel readiness.
Certain leadership styles that explicitly address the needs of Generation Y and Z are also additionally worthy of analysis - especially the charismatic leadership and transformational leadership style. The proportional combination of both leadership styles can create a foundation for successful leadership. Charismatic leaders are aware of their abilities and trust their leadership style. They develop problem-solving strategies and thus secure the trust of their personnel. They can reinforce their trust and enhance their reputation by constantly repeating this process. As a result, they can inspire, respond dynamically to changes as they occur, and develop innovative solutions. They lead by example through "self-sacrifice and personal risk-taking". Transformational leadership is strongly characterised by leaders supporting their personnel and increasingly assuming a mentoring role. In doing so, they offer support in the face of challenges and orientation. Accordingly, problem-solving processes are initiated not only by the leader but also by the personnel. The combination of both leadership styles, transformational-charismatic leadership, can be an inspirational and supportive leadership style.
The proportional combination of both leadership styles can create a foundation for successful leadership. Charismatic leaders are aware of their abilities and trust their leadership style. They develop problem-solving strategies and thus secure the trust of their personnel.
With such a leadership style, leaders set a direction, identify challenges, convince with their abilities, are role models for their personnel, and involve them in problem-solving approaches. Military leaders should be able to inspire their personnel for the common mission. Mission fulfilment can be ensured, as the personnel can also proactively contribute to solving problems. In this way, personnel can also be intrinsically motivated to develop problem-solving approaches. Such a leadership style can be developed through communication, problem-solving and teamwork training. It also responds to the needs of Generation Y and Z, allowing freedom in action to work out problem-solving approaches. It is not top-down but rather focused on achieving the best possible results in a team. However, leadership styles cannot be "applied" across the board, but always include a personal and individual imprint of the leader herself/himself. Even though a uniform leadership style cannot be established, it makes sense to highlight factors of great importance for developing a personal leadership style: Individual influence, inspiration and motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized treatment.
Stimulations, Inspiration, Motivation
Individual influence can be exerted by being perceived of as a role model and acting with integrity. When leaders give clear tasks and motivate for the mission completion, military leaders act inspiringly and motivate. Intellectual stimulation is defined by problem-solving approaches and is also characteristic of enabling further training programs. Fixed structures and thought patterns can be broken down, and innovation, creativity, and flexibility in thinking and acting can emerge. In addition, they respond to the demands of Generation Y and Z by treating their personnel individually and appreciatively. For leaders, it is necessary to pass on the knowledge they have acquired and the experience they have gained to their personnel in a targeted manner so that they use this learning situation and can also complete mission tasks on their own.
Fixed structures and thought patterns can be broken down, and innovation, creativity, and flexibility in thinking and acting can emerge.
Ensuring personnel readiness is a challenging task. Leaders must “communicate expectations and clearly express the importance of readiness.” Especially when the needs and value systems of the generations to be included may conflict with the necessities of fulfilling the mission in an increasingly dynamic world. Nevertheless, military leaders can contribute to personnel readiness if their competencies are developed. Since the demands on leaders have never been higher, these competencies are manifold.
It has been pointed out that one's individual leadership competence is decisive in whether mission fulfilment can be guaranteed. Leadership competence must be developed holistically. The functions of leadership - locomotive function and cohesive function - must be addressed. While it is challenging to bring together people from different generations, leaders must ensure mission fulfilment with their personnel and guarantee social cohesion through leadership. Furthermore, establishing emotional intelligence needs to be emphasized. That’s why strong developed social skills and one's own competence for self-reflection are indispensable.
The increased demands on military leaders also require pronounced resilience, which can be developed through on-the-job programs, e.g., exercises during training or psychological stresses that develop one's own resilience. Finally, it is worthwhile focusing on different leadership styles that enable the proactive participation of personnel. They should be included in the development of different problem-solving strategies. For example, the transformational-charismatic leadership style should be highlighted, which strongly involves a leader’s personnel in developing problem-solving strategies. This meets the needs of Generations Y and Z, who increasingly want more freedom in their job. Generation Y and Z also demand more clarity of meaning. Therefore, leaders need to create a meaningful purpose.