The Cure for Leadership Narcosis™ in a VUCA World

Have you experienced Leadership Narcosis™?

Leadership Narcosis™ is a term I use to describe the adverse leadership behavior and associated disruptive organizational impact of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world on leaders today and into the future.  

From my experience as a former U.S. Navy officer in special operations and as a current organizational psychologist, the behavioral reactions for divers experiencing nitrogen narcosis are quite similar to the behaviors exhibited by leaders with what I refer to as Leadership Narcosis™.  As our world gets disrupted more frequently, at a faster pace, with greater magnitude and volume,  it is appropriately characterized as a VUCA environment.   VUCA, as you are probably aware, is a term created by the Army’s War College to describe the turbulent nature of today's larger geopolitical environment.  It's also a term that's being used increasingly to describe the business world. 

Nitrogen narcosis is a reversible alteration in consciousness producing a state similar to alcohol intoxication. I have personally experienced this (nitrogen narcosis, not alcohol intoxication) during diving operations with the Navy.  It occurs to some small extent at any depth, but in most cases doesn’t become noticeable until deeper diving depths, usually starting around 30 to 40 meters.  Due to its perception-altering effects, the onset of nitrogen narcosis may be hard to recognize. But its severity is unpredictable, and in scuba diving, the resulting illogical behavior can be fatal.  

The cure for nitrogen narcosis, however, is simple. The effects disappear within minutes upon ascending to shallower depths. Symptoms of nitrogen narcosis include wooziness, giddiness, euphoria, disorientation, loss of balance, loss of manual dexterity, slowing of reaction time, fixation of ideas and impairment of complex reasoning. In the more extreme cases, some divers demonstrate a sense of invulnerability, extreme anxiety, exhilaration, depression or even paranoia.  The higher brain functions such as reasoning, judgment, memory, perception, concentration and attention tend to be the first affected by narcosis.

The influence of narcosis may not be evident if the dive is uneventful, thus giving a false impression that you are in control of the situation.

Memory and perception deficits may only be evidenced by a failure to follow instructions or the dive plan, or being inattentive to buoyancy, air supply or buddy signals. When a problem develops, you may be unaware. That's because your attention and perception are focused elsewhere (perceptual narrowing or "tunnel vision"). Thus, emergency signals will go unheeded, emergency air supplies will not be offered, weight belts will not be released, rescue attempts will be crude and amateurish. The safety of both the diver and his buddy are compromised. If you believe you are suffering from nitrogen narcosis then signal to your buddy, by doing the "I'm narc'd!" hand signal, which is moving your index finger in circles at the side of your head. You and your buddy should then make a slow ascent to shallower water, while ascending at a safe rate (no more than 18m/60ft per minute) until you feel better.   

Regardless of the term used to describe the current and future marketplace (e.g., VUCA, turbulence, unrelenting change, uncertainty, organizational compression, etc.) the fact is that the world around us is accelerating at an alarming pace.  

Without a focused effort on the identification of strengths and weaknesses followed by targeted and often preemptive developmental activities, some leaders are starting to show signs and symptoms similar to nitrogen narcosis that I refer to as Leadership Narcosis™.   There is a law among divers known as "Martini's Law." It states: Every 50 feet of seawater equals 1 dry martini on an empty stomach.  Although it is a rough estimate, it would mean a diver at 200 feet is experiencing intoxication from pressurized nitrogen equal to 4 martinis!

More than 80 percent of scuba divers fail to recognize or remember having any signs or symptoms of nitrogen narcosis. So, what can you do? Well, you can risk diving stupidly and slowly and clumsily at more than 60 feet or you can dive relatively safely at less than 60 feet all the time. You can and should dive with a dive buddy who will check on you.

Symptoms of Leadership Narcosis™ ... and the Cure

The symptoms characterizing Leadership Narcosis™ include a sense of invulnerability, tight control on decisions, fixation of ideas or tunnel vision, resistance to change, being frequently surprised by trends and patterns (“didn’t see it coming”), risk aversion, not encouraging innovation, demonstrated lack of confidence in others, and avoiding feedback about both good and poor performance.  If you know a leader experiencing any of these behaviors or demonstrate some yourself, contact an experienced coach who is aware of Leadership Narcosis™ symptoms and can immediately help identify actions that can improve and often cure the behavior.  An executive coach can serve as a dive buddy does for his or her diving partner.  The coach can use a number of valuable assessment tools (e.g., Leadership Agility Profile™ 360, Agility Personality Profile™, etc.) to help identify the symptoms of Leadership Narcosis™.  The coach can also provide immediate feedback to the coachee about the impact of his/her Leadership Narcosis™ behavior by observing team meetings that are led by the coachee.  The resulting leadership development plan will focus on the behaviors necessary to progress towards full recovery from a brief bout or extended period of Leadership Narcosis™. 

Research is currently being done by my colleague Dr. Ben Baran and Agility Analytics Practice Leader at Agility Consulting on the topic of VUCA, which will result in The VUCA Report™.  Our observations from research combined with our consulting experience reflect an increasingly alarming trend of senior C-level officers exhibiting characteristics of Leadership Narcosis™.  A recent study by Kaplan and Minton (2006) reported that only 35% of CEOs in place in 1992 remained as CEO in 1997, while only 24% of CEOs in place in 1998 remained CEO in 2003. 

Leadership assessment, development and coaching can help companies identify the risk and possible courses of action.  In an effort to help identify and prevent the occurrence of narcosis, many organizations are focusing on the development of strategic agility as a critical competency of leadership (e.g., Dell, ARAMARK, Genentech, Aflac and others).   One of the tools that has been introduced to help focus a company’s initiatives and support executive coaching has been the Leadership Agility Profile - 360® (LAP).  A customized version of the LAP has been used by the American Management Association since 2006 in its Strategic Agility and Resilience Seminars offered throughout the U.S. and Canada. 

Leaders in HR and talent management have an increasingly business imperative to focus on HR and Talent Management Agility.  I’ll be joining other HR professionals at the 2016 Human Capital Summit in New Orleans, March 29-30. The theme of that conference is “Agile Talent Strategies for Managing Change and Shifting Priorities,” and I’d love to see you there. Click here for more about the conference. 

About Nick Horney
Nick Horney, Ph.D. is The Agility Doc. He first discovered the value of agility during his 23 years of service as a special operations naval officer responsible for diving and explosive ordnance disposal teams. In these rapidly unfolding and changing circumstances--and now, as an organizational psychologist--Nick discovered that the key ingredient separating good leaders from best leaders is agility. After serving in a senior role at the Center for Creative Leadership, he founded Agility Consulting and Training in 2001. Learn more about Nick at