Night of the Living Dead, VUCA, and Strangling Tangles

Mon, Nov 09, 2009

VUCA ConceptThis past Halloween, my husband and I locked ourselves in our darkened home, and watched a dvd of  Night of the Living Dead. I had never seen it before and to be honest, I can’t say that I truly watched the whole thing. I spent part of the movie hidden under a blanket! If you haven’t seen it before, it contains some very gruesome scenes. However, as your intrepid Tangle Doctor, I couldn’t help see applications for saving corporate America form their own nights of the living dead.

Let me explain. This classic 1968 cult thriller starts off in a Pennsylvania graveyard. A brother and sister are visiting their father’s grave. A ghoul starts coming after the sister. She screams. The brother tries to save her and is killed. The sister runs off to an empty house. There, she finds an African American man (Ben) boarding doors and windows. He urges her to come inside to be safe. (Spoiler alert—if you haven’t seen the movie, the rest may spoil your thrills in watching. However, you will miss out on how this relates to corporate tangles.) Ben discovers a television. He turns it on and it turns out that there are ghouls all over America.

Here’s where the concept of VUCA comes into play. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. This is a true VUCA situation. The television news broadcasters proclaim a state of chaos all over the United States. The situation is volatile because scores of men, women, and children are being killed by people eating monsters. There is uncertainty about who these monsters are, where they came from, and how long this will last. The situation is complex because newly dead people apparently spring to life, and go after the living. There is speculation that this is tied to a recent shuttle to Venus. Or perhaps the cause of this situation is radioactivity from the shuttle or some other source. The situation is ambiguous because there are no clear action steps. First people are warned to stay in. Then they are encouraged to go out. Everyone is scared and confused.

Today’s businesses find themselves in a truly volatile environment. The volatility of markets, uncertain consumer spending, complex credit environment, and ambiguous decision path forward make it difficult for corporate executives to calibrate their corporate strategies. Like the people eating ghouls in Night of the Living Dead, today’s business leaders face unprecedented external threats. They are also scared and confused.

But wait, the threats are not only from within in Night of the Living Dead. It is not enough that zombie-like creatures are roaming the countryside looking for prey. It turns out that there are others in the boarding house and they emerge from the basement. Some are willing to go along with Ben’s plan to protect the house. But one man is selfish and cares only about himself. He has his own agenda and challenges Ben. So while the inhabitants face a crisis of massive proportions, there is internal conflict. Does this sound familiar?

There is a lesson here for today’s leaders. Ben, it turns out, is a strong resourceful leader with a clear plan.  He stays strong and calm in the face of crisis. He doesn’t back down. In order for the others to survive, he kills the dissenter. Metaphorically speaking, leaders sometimes do need to kill dissent. My research suggests that effective leaders make sure that they have a strong team, working toward a common cause. If someone is not aligned with the strategic direction, and after discussion cannot get on board, it is in no one’s best interest for that leader to stay.

In Night of the Living Dead, people were strangled right and left. The situation did become a Strangling Tangle. Today’s corporate leaders can avoid Strangling Tangles by quickly sizing up their strategic landscape, making sound decisions, and rallying others to take decisive action.

Is your company in crisis or threatened by unprecedented external threats? Is your leadership team aligned? If you would like to avoid your own corporate version of Night of the Living dead, contact me at for a complimentary consultation.

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

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