Lebanon as a VUCA Country:
The Challenge and the Opportunity
President of the Republic of Lebanon, 1982-1988
19 May 2018
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Remarks for the YPO conference
Leadership in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous Environment
Grand Hills Hotel, Beirut, Lebanon
May 16-20, 2018
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Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to thank sincerely my old friend Robert Mouawad—along with his sons, Fred and Pascal, who are both dear to my heart—for this opportunity to meet with the distinguished members of the Southeast Asia chapter of YPO, in this singular and exceptional venue Robert have created.
I would also like to recognize all of you for participating in these important proceedings, especially those who traveled great distances to be here today.
To the participants who are visiting Lebanon for the first time: I hope that by the end of this conference you will view Lebanon not as a business challenge, but rather as an entrepreneurial opportunity thanks to the bounties of our land and the unique qualities of our people.
I have been asked by our distinguished organizers to draw on my life experiences to tease out the relevance of the VUCA concept to Lebanon, both in the past and today.
My application of the VUCA idea to real-world circumstances is shaped by the roles I have played, including: citizen and lifelong resident of a small country—Lebanon—that for better or worse absorbs almost every Arab, Middle Eastern, and global trend; close student of and participant in Middle Eastern politics on the national and regional levels for well over half a century; peacetime parliamentarian and wartime president; founder and director of Maison du Futur, an international think tank; and leader of one of the Arab world’s oldest political parties.
In all of these capacities, I have traveled extensively and visited practically every country in the Middle East, some numerous times over many decades.
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The VUCA Concept
When I was invited to speak about the VUCA concept as it applies to Lebanon, after some reflection I was struck by how often during the arc of my career I have been confronted by the challenge of making decisions in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment.
I do believe that intellectually declaring that a “state of VUCA” exists can facilitate the vital search for purpose, coherence, and direction in decision making. Here “purpose” is defined as goals, “coherence” as a set of policies, and “direction” as leadership. VUCA thinking, in short, can enable both strategic deliberation and strategic action.
The VUCA concept was first discussed in two strategic studies prepared by officers associated with the U.S. Army War College in the mid and late 1990s.
[Robert M. Murphy, “Overview of Strategic Management,” in Leading and Managing in the Strategic Arena: A Reference Text (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 1996-1997), p. 454.
Wayne E. Whiteman, “Training and Educating Army Officers for the 21st Century: Implications for the United States Military Academy,” U.S. Army War College Strategy Research Project, 11 March 1998 (available from [http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a345812.pdf ]; accessed 7 May 2018).]
And recently by Robert Gates
The VUCA idea then migrated from the military sphere to the business world, where today it enjoys traction and appeal sufficient, for example, to bring this distinguished group together under the auspices of the YPO.
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I think it’s important to distinguish between the “crisis situations” that history has always known and the more intractable VUCA environments that have proliferated today because the former are time-limited, while the latter are temporally extended.
I would also like to take a moment to highlight a difference between VUCA thinking in statecraft versus in business, namely: sovereign states are not mobile in the way that investment capital is. In other words, a government leader is responsible for a fixed political space whose internal conditions—no matter how volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous they may be—are unavoidable.
In contrast, a business leader—and even in some cases a military leader—can if necessary take the difficult decision to pull human, material, and financial resources out of a VUCA country. Losses will be incurred, to be sure, but the option exists of redeploying to another market or theater with more favorable conditions.
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Relevance of the VUCA Concept to Lebanon, Then and Now
To my mind, VUCA is an excellent framework for understanding the dynamics of modern Lebanon.
Lebanon is a VUCA country because we are permanently a focus of unforgiving regional politics, periodically a center of volatile global politics, and perpetually a study in dysfunctional politics thanks to certain local actors who place themselves in the service of foreign interests.
A brief survey of recent history will demonstrate why Lebanon has failed to transcend its VUCA status:
• In 1958, Nasser sought to annex Lebanon as part of his drive to create a United Arab Republic consisting of Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon (this project was defeated thanks, in large measure, to the timely intervention of U.S. Marines);
• In 1975 and after, Yasser Arafat and the PLO exploited Lebanon as a base and a platform to attack Israel, destabilizing the country’s internal politics and, eventually, provoking Israel to invade Lebanon and occupy its southern region;
• Starting around 1980, and continuing to some extent this day, Syria has sought to impose a complete hegemony over the Lebanese state;
• After the formal conclusion of the Lebanese Civil War in late 1989, Iran sought to export its Islamic Revolution to Lebanon, most importantly by means of large-scale military and financial support for Hezbollah.
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Despite the VUCA conditions that are imposed on Lebanon by external actors and their local proxies, I believe that the Lebanese people have shown remarkable and steadfast courage in defending their independence, sovereignty, and unity.
In defending their convictions on the front line that divides civilization from barbarism, a generation of Lebanese patriots has made great sacrifices to defend and implement the ideals of freedom and human rights. I myself have lost to political assassinations a brother (also a president-elect), a son (also a government minister), a niece, and a nephew.
Also essential are the friends Lebanon attracts throughout the world community, including the global business community. This is a major reason why events such as this conference—which brings international business leaders to our shores—contribute measurably to the stabilization and rebuilding of Lebanon.
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Leadership Lessons from “VUCA Lebanon”
Ladies and Gentlemen, I would now like to share with you some reflections—which may or may not rise to the level of “lessons”—on leadership and decision making in a VUCA context.
In 1982, I assumed the presidency of Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of my brother Bachir’s assassination at the hands of Syrian agents, which occurred just weeks after he was elected president (although he had not yet taken office).
At the same time, powerful Syrian and Israeli armies confronted each other even as they occupied strategic zones of the country; similarly, an array of militia forces and terrorist groups held sway over overlapping and contested slices of Lebanese territory, each under the banner of their favored cause, which ranged from the criminal to the millennial.
Relations among sectarian communities and political parties became increasingly fractured and fraught, to the point where most Lebanese—even in educated and formerly cosmopolitan circles—could not see beyond their immediate fears and ceased to think according any category except tribal survival.
In such conditions, any effort to save the country by rebuilding a sense of national community and national purpose was denounced as a kind of a satanic plot. In short, if ever a political space could justly be designated as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, it was Lebanon in the 1980s!
As a young president thrust into the vortex of regional and also global politics, I approached the challenges by adhering to a set of basic principles, namely:
• Wisdom counts for little unless it is leavened by honesty (the words of a French proverb my father was fond of quoting were never far from my mind: “Il n’y a qu’une habilité, c’est l’honnêteté,” meaning, “There is only one ability that matters, and that is honesty”);
• The people—meaning all communities that compose the nation—deserve to be served and saved (we sought an internationally funded “Marshall Plan for Lebanon” and began reconstruction efforts as broadly as possible, especially in areas where political support for my government was weakest);
• To transcend the narrative of present disaster, keep faith in—and focus on—the future (as president, I proposed an ambitious international initiative under the umbrella of the UN to declare Lebanon an internationally recognized zone of interfaith dialogue);
• Be flexible and innovative (all institutions, especially within a democratic system, should be based on consensus;
• Engage a range of actors through continuous dialogue at the local, regional, and global levels (every interlocutor of capacity, even if they represent a hostile constituency, should be given access and a fair hearing because today’s adversary could be tomorrow’s ally);
• By all means cultivate international partners of good will, but always stand ready to educate them about the true nature of conditions in the country.
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Perhaps the most important long-term success of my administration was preserving the core of the Lebanese state, including its constitution and fundamental institutions of presidency, parliament, judiciary, and armed forces.
In addition, we maintained the sacred received traditions of the Lebanese Republic, namely democracy, human rights, and pluralism.
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At the opening of my talk, I expressed hope that you all would leave this conference thinking of Lebanon as an opportunity rather than a challenge. Now, at the conclusion of my remarks, I would like to reiterate that sentiment.
Lebanon is indeed VUCA country, of that there can be no doubt. But the Lebanese are a flexible and creative people and as such are experts at managing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity; in short, the Lebanese know how to make their system “work,” even under difficult circumstances.
No better evidence of this could be given than the fact that Lebanon has largely insulated itself from the worst effects of the still-raging Syrian wars, while at the same time peacefully accommodating 1.5 million or more Syrian refugees.
Internally, in the wake of the recent parliamentary elections and the forthcoming installation of a new cabinet, Lebanon must enact key administrative reforms in the public sector. Such reforms must nurture a new generation of public servants who will implement internationally recognized best practices in the service of all Lebanese.
Externally, activating a subtle but vigorous diplomacy of “positive neutrality” would represent an important step in restoring the international identity of the Lebanese state.
Such a doctrine would give substance and scope to Lebanon’s traditional intermediary role, which has helped resolve—or at least manage—VUCA conditions triggered by a set of contradictions that play out in Lebanon, namely those between geographies (the Arab world and Europe), between religions (Islam and Christianity), and between philosophies (tradition and modernity).
To chart a course through the VUCA storms of the wider Middle East, Lebanon—like other transitioning Arab countries—will need the international community’s active engagement and assistance, including engagement by business leaders like you.
But only the Lebanese themselves can restore their state and re-launch their national brand to meet the challenges of the 21st century. This is our challenge…and our opportunity.