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Leading In a VUCA World

Today everyone is talking about VUCA and what it means to lead in a such an environment. The question is "Are there any different competencies a VUCA leader needs to have or is it just that some competencies need to be further honed and developed into strengths?"

First let's reiterate what exactly the VUCA World is:

  • V = Volatile. Today's business environment is constantly changing. The change occurs at varying speeds and can happen with varying intensity at different times and in different situations.

  • U = Uncertain. The ability to predict the changes and the intensity is no longer that easy. There are times when people are surprised when faced with various issues and events.

  • C = Complex. Today there are multiple forces and variables impacting the environment at the same time. The number of directions or areas that impact a business are almost incomprehensible. The global environment ensures that decisions are no longer as straight forward as they once were. With clients, vendors, competition and teams spread in different corners of the world, there are innumerable factors & variables that can lead to chaos and confusion.

  • A = Ambiguous. With so much happening all over, it becomes difficult to read the environment and reality becomes hazy. There is a chance of misreading the meaning of certain conditions and not understanding the true nature of Cause-and-effect.

In such an environment a leader needs to be that much more adept and capable to sail his ship through these turbulent waters. While everything written about what leaders need would certainly be required here too, I feel there are a few competencies that need to be developed and honed that much more to have the maximum "Leadership Impact".

There is enough discussion about the need for Critical thinking and Problem solving, I'm going to share some competencies that I feel are essential to get the best out of VUCA.

  1. Self Awareness

This is a pretty obvious competence spoken about in various contexts and models, question is why is it specifically important for VUCA leaders?

Self-awareness as defined by Daniel Goleman in his books and research on Emotional Intelligence where he states it is knowing one's Emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals- and their impact on others.

  • It's important for a leader to be aware of how the VUCA environment is affecting him emotionally, is he getting frustrated, stressed or bogged down by situations around him.

  • Does he credit his moods with blame on an employee or team member or does he understand that this is his emotional reaction to VUCA.

  • Does he understand his reactions towards others and address the way he needs to ideally respond in stressful situations or does he feel that his reactions are justified by the outcomes not being achieved by the team.

  • When a successful Leader suddenly faces VUCA and thus failures, is he able to introspect on his strengths & probable weaknesses in the new situation or does he bash on, regardless of the fact that he might not have certain strengths needed to navigate through these turbulent waters.

All these questions are answered through a higher degree of Self Awareness.

2. Passion to Excel (Grit)

The Passion to Excel is defined in our 5S leadership model asthe Focus to be the best through achieving long term goals & ambitions, along with, the Grit to follow through no matter the obstacles, challenges or failures that come one's way.

Angela Lee Duckworth has stated in her book "Grit: The power of Passion &Persevarance"- Grit is passion and perseverance for a long term goal. Grit is having stamina to go at it again and again. Grit is sticking with your future day in and day out, not just for the week, not for the month but for years working really hard to make that future a reality.

Grit is treating life like a marathon and not a sprint!

  • In a VUCA world it's very easy to justify a failure or lack of growth to the turbulent waters or changes that occurred between the time of planning and during the final execution.

  • A person with a Passion to Excel does not say we could not achieve due to.......Instead he says, we achieved this despite.........

3. Learning Mindset

A learning mindset as defined in our 5S Leadership model is the desire to constantly want to better yourself, by seeking new and engaging experiences, keeping yourself open to newer, innovative and better ways of doing something through actively seeking feedback and opinions.

  • This competence again is very critical for a leader to keep his doors open to what others think and believe about the situation, decisions and plans.

  • Many a leader feels his experience is the yardstick and can give him & his organisation guidance based on his experience; not realising that there experience might not hold good in the new VUCA environment.

  • Sometimes a leaders rigidity to continue on the path he has laid is the downfall of many an organisation.

This particular competence has been adapted from the article "LEARNING MINDSET: How Leaders Develop Through Experience by Dr. Steve Terrell, Aspire Consulting."

4. Empowering people

To Empower people means to create an environment where people have independence in their work, where along with responsibility, authority to take decisions is also delegated . To Empower people is to enable them with all the information, knowledge and skills required and then have trust in their competence and capabilities.

This competence becomes of prime importance in a VUCA world if a leader tends to keep knowledge, info and power to himself. These actions ensure that:

  • When the team faces a sudden change or volatile situation they are not capable and confident to handle the situation.

  • They fear making a mistake and will wait for the leader to come and personally steer them through the turmoil.

  • Often this leads to missed opportunities due to delayed actions and decisions from a person who is not as connected with the situation as the team itself.

  • A VUCA world often needs quick decisions and actions; however, when all authority is centered at one place it creates a bottle neck, ensuring that the speed and agility of the organisation is hampered.

5. Empathetic Leadership

There is a lot spoken and written about Empathy in Leadership and taking from Lolly Daskal& Simon Sinek we have defined An Empathetic leader creates an environment of Openness, Transparency & Trust through personal interest in getting to know people, showing care and concern for peoples issues & emotions and giving genuine appreciation, recognition and feedback.

  • In a VUCA world an Empathetic leader keeps people loyal, connected and motivated to face all the hurdles and challenges they will face together.

  • It ensures people share problems and challenges before they become an issue, thus as a leader his ability to foresee and deal with situations before they come and hit him in the face become better.

  • When a leader empathises and understands the challenges faced by his team in a VUCA world he helps reduce their frustration and increase their ability to deal with VUCA.

  • The important factor is that they will see their leader as one of them facing the challenges together instead of feeling that they are burdened by the leader.

(Off-course too much empathy without a Passion to Excel and Empowering people can lead to people using the situations as an excuse)

6. Quick & Effective Decision making

  • It is the competence to be able handle your stresses, emotions and apprehensions to take a quick & validated decision especially when paralyzed by indecision due to the ever changing VUCA world.

  • It's important for a leader to know when is the right time to take a decsion.

  • The ability to balance Gut decisions with calculated thought through decisions is a must

  • If a leader always waits to evaluate every angle of a decision before he takes a call the organisation might miss many an opportunity and the decision taken might no longer be relevant.

  • On the other hand an instinctive decision from the gut, might be absolutely in time; however, it might be ineffective as it doesn't take into account all perspectives of the situation.

  • It might be difficult to convince people for a quick decision from the gut. Thus, with less commitment from the team the decision is bound to fail in execution anyway.

7. Change Catalyst​

As a Leadership competence being a Change Catalyst means to anticipate the need for change by having a bird’s eye view on external factors and trends. To take initiative to drive change by influencing people and getting their Buy-In. All these factors become critical in adapting to a VUCA world by driving change and building the ability of an organisation to be dynamic, flexible and ever changing

8. Leverage Diversity

To leverage diversity means to recruit, develop and retain a diverse workforce, where diverse people, their views and opinions are valued by being involved into the decision making process.

In a VUCA world this competence helps to:

  • Be able to see things from varied perspectives. The more varied the people, their personalities and their skill sets the more perspectives can be generated. This helps to make sense of the madness and generate ideas of what to do from here.

  • A diverse group of people will be able to read the signs differently and might give better warning of what is to come in VUCA.

  • Diversity in skills & personalities also enables a team to be able to handle a variety of situations where different people take the lead at different points of time. It ensures there is always someone with the capability of handling different situations generated through the VUCA environment.

Off course, while hiring a diverse team is easy; managing and getting the best out of them is the competence of the leader.

9. Synergising Partnerships

5S leadership model we have defined this as the ability to effectively collaborate with all internal and external stakeholders by networking and building relationships. To collaborate in conflicting situations by focusing on the bigger organisational goals, while being able to identify and address the issues and interests of others and assert your own position with confidence and enthusiasm.

The ability to synergise and collaborate is critical in a VUCA world as:

  • For fast execution and getting on the train at the right time one needs support from all stakeholders. Many an organisation and leader get stuck in in-fighting trying to convince people of the actions they wish to take.

  • Many great plans and initiatives fail due to a lack of support for people driving the initiative.

When the whole organisation/team work in harmony with a belief towards a common objective then they can do wonders in just about any environment

10. Strategic Thinking

While we all know that Strategic thinking is the ability to think, plan and execute long term vision & goals to sustain long term growth. The question is how relevant is thinking and planning for long term goals; when the environment is in perpetual flux, where the only constant is VUCA and you have barely any idea of whats going to happen next month, let alone 5 to 10 years from now.

With companies coming in with more and more disruptive products and services using fast changing and evolving technology, can we really plan a strategy for the future?

Challenges of Strategic Thinking in VUCA world:

  • A clearly defined long term goals with a detailed strategy can lead to a leader running akin to a horse with blinders.

  • When a path is too clearly etched in stone it gets difficult to maintain the flexibility of different paths to reach the destination.

  • With a clearly communicated strategy it sometimes becomes difficult for a leader to accept that the strategy requires change. Thus, sometimes a leader goes from needing to be a change Catalyst to actually become a Change Inhibitor.

  • When taking decisions too, the leader might also look to value the factors for the strategy while negating or ignoring the factors against.

  • A leader who puts too much emphasis on a defined strategy might lose out on being Empathetic to his team and not realising the need to change or alter certain processes to make the work smoother, easier and more enjoyable to the team.

While all these challenges reiterate the importance of the 9 competences mentioned earlier, if Strategic Thinking can be effectively balanced with them then there are many benefits to having this competence in the VUCA world:

  • With a clearly defined path, it becomes easier to analyse if this is the ideal route to get where we want

  • If the final goal is clear and well articulated, it becomes easier to choose between multiple paths to achieve the goal

  • A regular review of the strategy and plans helps to identify which initiatives to drive more strongly and which need to be shelved.

  • A team is more empowered when they have clarity of where they are heading, a clarity of which path to follow and clarity of how much authority they have to alter the path in the interest of reaching the desired goal.

Thus, in a VUCA world a leader needs to be Strategic, while being flexible to alter the strategy. The inputs from which will be based on the strength in the 9 other competences.

These 10 points for Leading in VUCA world have been taken from the study which we've done to define Leadership competencies required and detailed into our 5S Leadership model that has 5 domains and 20 competencies.

For further queries on developing your leaders to handle VUCA, please contact or visit our website

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