How can leaders steer organisations and empower teams in a VUCA world?

Rianne Silvey | 18 April 2024

Principal Consultant, Rianne Silvey, takes a closer look at what CEOs can do to be effective leaders in a VUCA environment.

We’re living and leading in VUCA times. This isn’t new. VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) is a concept and acronym coined by the US Army in the late 1980s, after the fall of the Soviet Union triggered a spike in global instability and as a global society, we’ve been somewhere on the VUCA scale ever since.

However, in the past four years alone, CEOs have led their organisations through a pandemic and public health emergency that left the world of work unrecognisable. We’ve seen the outbreak of wars in Europe and the Middle East, an ongoing climate crisis and record-breaking inflation creating cost-of-living pressures at home. All against a backdrop of rapid technological change and now in a year of more elections than ever before in human history and declining democracy.

Every organisation is affected by the VUCA environment we now consider the norm, and employees understandably may feel overwhelmed and lack motivation, but leadership teams can employ several strategies to address this and nurture their people.

Redefining VUCA

Futurist and author Bob Johansen suggests VUCA can be turned around to a more positive framework of effective leadership and redefined as: vision, understanding, clarity and agility.

Creating a compelling vision for an organisation is a vital starting point – it has become somewhat of a corporate cliché, but being able to craft a story for the future is the key to gaining a competitive advantage.

Leaders must be able to bring their people on the journey with them, particularly in a volatile and unpredictable environment. By being clear on their organisation’s vision and its values, and its goals for the future, and asking the right questions for sound understanding will allow leaders to engender a feeling of stability and control. But the change is constant, so you still need the agility to be able to adapt and give direction around priorities while identifying emerging risks.

Telling your story

Stories are a constant throughout the ages, generations and in our own individual lifetimes. As a species we “think in metaphors and learn through stories,” the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson has written. Storytelling has the power to connect and inspire everybody in an organisation, making it an essential tool for leaders looking to effect change.

Emotion runs through any story. Leaders need to understand deeply and describe simply. It’s never about glossing over a challenge or adversity. The best stories present the problem faced by characters and build tension to deliver the climax which is the clear and compelling mandate for change. The “happily ever after” for leaders is describing the rigorous and optimistic way forward.

You also probably need to communicate more than you think you need to. There’s comfort and learning in repetition. Its innate – something which anyone who has ever read a bedtime story to a toddler can attest to.

Be human-centred

A Harvard Business Review article from last year takes an interesting look at “How to Be a Better Leader Amid Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity” and concludes that the key to intelligent leadership in VUCA is low-data decision making. This could be counter-intuitive to many leaders as we’ve built insights and businesses on data and understanding the detail. But the fact is, data means less when the backdrop is ever-changing, whereas instinct, experience and brain power will thrive in unpredictable environments – it’s evolution.

In the same vein, leaders should focus on optimising people as opposed to the plans. It is important to plan but by training and developing the people doing the planning, you can continue to solve problems when we move from Plan A through the alphabet.

Jamais Cascio from Institute for the Future has also written about BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, and Incomprehensible), an intentional parallel to VUCA which suggests we’ve gone beyond the age of volatility into chaos. This means ways of thinking – and leading – will need to continue to evolve.

We work with leaders and teams to acknowledge the challenges of a VUCA or even BANI environment and proactively to counteract it, putting a clear strategy in place to build and nurture a team that feels empowered and confident for the future.

Discover more about our leadership development and methods for environmental change, or if you’d like to speak to one of our consultants, please contact us.

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