Specifically, they were grappling with the context in which today’s leaders are leading—in the new reality of an increasingly complex world. The challenge our client kept returning to was how to develop leaders in a “VUCA” world, and how exemplary leadership could serve as an antidote to these troubling times.
VUCA—an acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity—is a concept borrowed from the U.S. Military War College that has been trending in HR and OD circles for some time. Here is a definition of each:
During our enrichment day discussion, we analyzed the degree to which The Five Practices encompassed these concepts or whether they were separate or distinct capabilities (read more on this topic from Harvard Business Review here,
Volatility refers to the nature and dynamics of change itself and the nature and speed of change forces and catalysts
Uncertainty refers to the lack of predictability, potential for surprise, and sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events
Complexity refers to the multiplex of forces, confounding of issues, and the chaos and confusion that surround an organization
Ambiguity refers to the haziness of reality, potential for misreads, and mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion
But in advance of that discussion, our research led us to two relevant sources that I believe could be valuable to my fellow practitioners in this field.
First is the work of Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future and author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. Johansen proposes that the best leaders to succeed in our VUCA world are characterized by vision, understanding, clarity, and agility—the opposite of the VUCA model. These four skills and abilities can be viewed as a leader’s antidote to today’s challenging environment, for example:
Vision can be the ideal remedy for Volatility. Because vision is even more vital in turbulent times than in times of calm and peace, leaders with a clear vision of where they want their organizations to be in three-to-five years can better weather volatile environmental changes such as economic downturns or new competition in their markets.The second source we referenced to prepare for our client work was Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s book, Turning Adversity into Opportunity. This work directly addresses the connection between a VUCA environment and The Five Practices. In preparation for our enrichment day, our client ordered this book for all top-level leaders, and they studied the six actionable strategies it lays out that show how to successfully navigate through uncertainty, hardship, transition, and other significant challenges.
Understanding can neutralize Uncertainty. To be effective in a VUCA environment, leaders must learn to stop, look, and listen beyond their functional areas of expertise to make sense of the volatility and to lead with vision. This requires leaders to communicate with employees at all levels of in their organizations and to develop and demonstrate teamwork and collaboration skills.
Clarity can defuse Complexity. In a VUCA world, chaos comes swift and hard. Leaders who can quickly and clearly tune into all the minutiae associated with the chaos and deliberately make sense of the situation can make better, more informed business decisions.
Agility can counter Ambiguity. Leaders with the ability to communicate across the organization can move quickly to apply solutions.
So why is practicing leadership an antidote to challenging times? As authors Kouzes and Poser write, “Challenge is the defining context for leadership. That’s the consistent pattern we’ve discovered from our research over the past three decades, asking thousands of people to tell us what they are doing when performing at their personal best as leaders. They told us about dealing with challenge, with adversity, with turbulence, and with unexpected difficulties and hardships… We learned very early on that no one ever got anything extraordinary done without initiating or accepting a challenge. Challenge, it turns out, is the crucible for greatness.”
These two sources, along with the discussion at enrichment day, have reinforced how relevant and evergreen The Five Practices and by virtue The Leadership Challenge, really are. As leadership development practitioners, I know you understand firsthand the challenging context that leaders find themselves in. Perhaps in your own organization, or with your clients, you’ll be able to help the leaders you work with shift their mindset from volatility to vision, from uncertainty to understanding, from complexity to clarity, and from ambiguity to agility.
By shifting their thinking, we can help leaders avoid wallowing in VUCA and influence them to pursue actions that move them to the opportunity in their own adversity. That’s after all, what great leaders do—they flip the script!
Adapted from FlashPoint Leadership Consulting’s blog, Leadership Insights.
Krista Skidmore, Esq. is Partner and Co-founder of FlashPoint, a Global Training Partner of The Leadership Challenge committed to ensuring that leaders truly learn practical skills and improve leadership effectiveness—and that the organizations they serve sees a strong return on investment. Passionate about all things leadership, Krista leads the FlashPoint consulting team to ensure they deliver results to clients with intelligence and integrity. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.