Volatile and Uncertain: Lessons from General Thurman

Volatile and Uncertain: Lessons from General Thurman

Apart from students of military history and strategy, Army General Maxwell Thurman’s legacy is largely unknown.  He spent 37 years serving his country, including stints in Vietnam as an intelligence adviser and artillery commander.  Upon his death in 1994, the New York Times referred to him as “a principal architect of the all-volunteer United States Army.”  General Thurman led the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in the post-Vietnam era that reframed the Army as an opportunity to “be all that you can be,” instead of a last-ditch option for young people with no direction.

In 1989, the General was hand-picked by President George H.W. Bush to lead the U.S. Southern Command, where he led the effort to depose dictator Manuel Noriega during the U.S. invasion of Panama.  Six years later leukemia ended his life.  He earned both the Distinguished Service Medal and the Bronze Star.  Throughout his distinguished career he was known for his discipline, demanding leadership, and strategic mind.  From Vietnam, to strengthening the all-volunteer Army, to Panama, his career clearly afforded an array of opportunities to hone his views of an uncertain world.

Thurman’s legacy persists perhaps most notably in his framing of the nature of combat, national defense, and homeland security.  He is credited by one Army War College study with coining a phrase that’s been applied to many settings beyond military strategy.  The author of that document credits Thurman with describing combat environments as “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous” – now popularly known in military, business, and leadership contexts as VUCA.  The apt acronym, which became especially popular after 9/11, has been applied to many contexts, and the message is clear:  We live in inherently confusing, unpredictable times, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic.  Army generals know this.  CEOs understand it. Political leaders experience VUCA, and so do my niece and her husband with two small children.

A VUCA mindset acknowledges that, despite our best preparation, things will go awry, as is clear to all of us in the midst of this pandemic.  As we work hard in education, business, government and other realms to produce the best outcomes during these demanding times, VUCA reminds us that we shouldn’t be surprised when things go differently than we expect.  But with a VUCA mindset, we know to persevere and remain calm in the face of volatility.  Maxwell Thurman would have it no other way.

© Tim Matheney, 2020

This post is adapted from Chapter 5 (“Perseverance”) of my book, Leadership that Lasts: Seven Actions Toward an Enduring ImpactImage by pixabay.com user _freakwave_.