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Leading in a VUCA World: McGowan Symposium Speakers Address Tough Issues in an Uncertain World

First coined by the U.S. military, VUCA—meaning volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous—can describe conditions in a war zone or a world sped up by lightning-fast media and complicated by unexpected tactical shifts, economic turns, and changing priorities. In the short- or long-term, all organizations are subject to these ambient conditions, which continue to intensify. That’s why the 2019 McGowan Symposium on Business Leadership & Ethics is focusing on insights and strategies that support sound leadership in a VUCA world.

Now in its 10th year, the annual symposium is the springboard to the yearlong McGowan Fellows Program, which provides tuition and principled leadership programming to second-year MBA students from 10 top business schools. At the symposium, Fellows delve into meaningful, sometimes challenging conversations with peers; alumni; recognized leaders in business, government, and academia; and thought leaders from outside their own MBA programs.

This year’s discussion welcomes wide-ranging points of departure. Video interviews with the speakers will be available in January. For now, a sampling:

David Vawdrey, chief data informatics officer at Geisinger’s Steele Institute for Health Innovation, has implemented transformational technologies to improve operations and value for patients, clinicians, researchers, and members across 13 hospital campuses, a health plan with nearly 600,000 members, and more. Among the examples of how the responsible and targeted use of data can work, he cites a new program in which patients shop at a new healthy grocery store—and change their health trajectories. He also explains how the system improved on the “wrong-patient” orders, especially for newborn twins.

Jason Jay, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, has addressed intransigence in conversation in his book Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World. Some of the tools he proposes for fostering more productive dialogue include contrasting, authenticity, and a spirit of serious play.

Also on the docket: Col. Charles D. Allen (retired) and Col. Joseph LeBoeuf (retired) will each bring insights drawn from decades of experience leading, teaching, and writing. In his talk, Allen poses three questions: What has changed? What has not changed? What should we do? His answers to those questions find enduring characteristics of leadership alongside a need for early exposure to enterprise environments for future leaders. LeBoeuf draws a 360-degree portrait of good leadership, including an emphasis on collaboration, membership, and inspiration.

Other speakers include David Schmittlein, dean of MIT’s Sloan School, and William P. McGowan, chair of the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund.

Past symposia have focused on specific issues, always with an eye to ethics. Topics have included values-based leadership, the changing face of work, and socially responsible innovation.