Leading Through Disruptive Times

Leadership is often portrayed as standing magnificently before a crowd of admiring followers, charging mightily into a glorious future. In reality, leadership is just as often standing alone at the cliffside of a bottomless canyon, cut off and clueless about how to proceed.

I recently had a novice manager share her astonishing insight with me that leaders in her organization were just “making it up as they went along.” This wasn’t so much a criticism of her leadership as it was the recognition that no one knows all the answers; that leadership is all about designing a future state in the face of changing circumstances and increasing uncertainties.

For decades we used the term VUCA to describe a world that was volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, driven largely by transformative technological and cultural changes. But recently, Jamais Cascio, an anthropologist and futurist, coined the acronym BANI to better encompass living in a turbulent and unpredictable world framed by changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, political instability, climate disasters, and new disruptive technologies.

BANI stands for:

  • Brittle – Seemingly stable systems pressured by efforts to maximize efficiency and remove any slack or excess capacity are fragile and susceptible to catastrophic shattering at any time.
  • Anxious – Living in this world creates a sense of always living on the edge and continuous urgency, anxiety, and hopelessness from the feeling that every choice we make could be potentially disastrous.
  • Nonlinear – In a complex system, cause and effect are often disconnected and disproportionate, surprising, or even counter-intuitive, so small decisions can sometimes contribute to massive consequences while enormous effort can have little impact.
  • Incomprehensible – A sense that we cannot understand what is happening, and the consequential feeling that we cannot predict, manage, or plan effectively.

In a BANI world, what is the path forward?

Cascio describes that brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.” All of this requires a different way of thinking about how we, as leaders, design organizational structures and the way we lead people within those structures.

Time and again, the focus has been on increasing efficiency and building the resilience of people to increase their capacity to drive positive outcomes – often resulting in more burnout and attrition. As leaders, it’s time we pivot from building the resilience of people to building the resilience of the organization. As I wrote last year, this requires an organizational culture that treats nurses as the professionals they are – not just cogs in the wheel of delivering patient care.

In a BANI world, we have a unique opportunity to build a coaching culture where we invest in building skills of team collaboration, empathy, and flexibility. In that way, we amplify the capabilities of our people and maximize the contribution of every member of the team. While the chaos and confusion of a BANI world may not change, we can respond by being more intentional when it comes to designing organizational structures that prioritize the safety of the workforce, ensures competence and empathy, and promotes excellence in care. Only then can we thoughtfully and purposefully transform health care and begin to make things better.


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