Like many individuals of a certain age, some of the unrecoverable hours from my teenage years were wasted (some might say invested) watching a boyish Tom Cruise feel his need for speed as Maverick in Top Gun. Having that formative experience, it was perhaps unsurprising that I eagerly awaited the sequel and arranged an afternoon date with my wife to watch Top Gun: Maverick on the big screen.

While it is admittedly a tad incongruous to see an almost-ready-for-the-pension Cruise still flying fighter jets, I didn’t let the reality (or lack thereof) of the storyline get to me. Rather, I spent a pleasant few hours regressing to my youth and dreaming of being able to have my ego write cheques that my body couldn’t cash.

I was thinking of both Top Gun movies recently while attending an Institute of Directors course on effective board chairing. Now I appreciate many will sigh in the knowledge that I am rapidly going to descend into the longstanding mistake of drawing parallels between popular movies and vocational issues, but you’ll have to humour me for a while.

What made Maverick an exceptional pilot was more than his amazing hand/eye coordination, his smooth one-liners or his ability to look cool no matter the situation. More than that, what makes a fighter pilot exceptional is his or her ability to process information quickly. The ability to react to a rapidly changing situation, and to adapt strategies and tactics accordingly is just what is needed when you’re in a dogfight at warp speed.

So what, you might well ask, does this have to do with the seemingly pedestrian world of corporate governance?

Something that is shared between both the business world and the military one is the appreciation for acronyms. One in particular that was borne out of the military but is now very much in vogue in the business world is VUCA. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. In other words, VUCA accurately describes the situation a Top Gun pilot faces when they are airborne and engaging a dynamic adversary.

It is also, increasingly, just the acronym to describe what life is like in a business environment that is increasingly chaotic and dynamic. When the world introduces global pandemics, massive supply chain constraints, technological disruption and labour shortages of unprecedented scale, business leaders are facing just the sort of VUCA conditions that Maverick was when engaging his adversaries.

Which gets us nicely to the role of the board, and particularly the chair of the board when it comes to conducting the symphony of their board.

Common governance theory and historical governance context would suggest that slow and steady cogitation was what governors required. Not rushing to conclusion, not making quick decisions and mulling over scenarios has been the stock in trade of corporate governance.

I’d like to humbly suggest that the luxury of time that has been enjoyed over hundreds of years of corporate governance, is something that is becoming less and less available. Instead, governors are having to make decisions while faced with incomplete information, a rapidly changing landscape and increasing levels of competitive tension.

Now I’d not suggest for a moment that governance prudence should be forever buried. The fact remains that much of what a board does is done with the luxury of time, or deep information flows and of velocity more Tiger Moth than F-18 Super Hornet. However, the incidence of VUCA situations within which a board needs to make quick decisions is increasing.

I’d hazard to suggest that both he roles & responsibilities, and the skills & attributes that typify governance are similarly changing and that the future governor looks very different to their historical peer.

And this is the crux of the matter for chairs who are trying to build capacity and capability within their boards. They need to ensure that they have both the lower-velocity governance skills on board, as well as those that can operate within a VUCA environment.

Now some would suggest that making decisions mid dogfight is a job for the pilots, not the generals. While this is a valid perspective, VUCA tells us that even the generals need to respond far more rapidly than they ever had to in the past.

While Maverick might well be a nightmare in the board room and unable to adapt to the norms of consensus and collective responsibility, some of the ways he reacted to his various battleground experiences might just be what our boards need going into a VUCA future.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He would have loved to have been a pilot.


Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.