Leadership in the VUCA World: Which Role You Should Play?

Posted by: Jeff Biggin Post Date: 9th October 2018

It may come as a surprise to some of you to learn that our friend the VUCA environment – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – is well over 30 years old. The idea of VUCA originated as a way of making sense of the rapidly shifting dynamics of the Cold War in the mid-1980s.

I don’t believe for a moment that it’s worn out its welcome, but how does it impact on leadership today?

Is it an ‘abracadabra’ helping us to make sense of a confusing world? 

Or a call to pull out the sword or lance and do battle with a forest full of foes and clear a pathway towards the future?

leadership in vuca world

Or a call to pull out the sword or lance and do battle with a forest full of foes and clear a pathway towards the future?

VUCA sounds like it might be a fantasy computer or role-playing game and, as long as we don’t become too literally wedded to this idea, that’s quite a useful analogy to consider. In such a game we don’t use the environment alone to play, we also begin to focus on who we are as the player.

In leadership, it’s pretty important to scan the environment (however volatile, uncertain, complex or ambiguous), establish the context, and then take appropriate action. There’s a high degree of skill and bucket loads of experience required to do this well, especially at the speed often required by today’s challenging world.

What I have just described in a nutshell is the contingency theory of leadership, and this provides us with only part of the story. We need more than this.

Choosing your approach in the VUCA environment

So, back in the game and back to the player, when faced with a choice of insight or power to choose, I would choose self-awareness.

What we can lose sight of, as we work very hard to establish and respond to what’s going on around us, is an awareness of how we ‘construct’ our understanding of the world ‘out there!’,  Which in turn is very much a consequence of our choosing; that which we select, ignore, categorise and filter.

In difficult or stressful situations leaders can slip readily into default patterns of ‘experiencing’ the world around them and make choices and select behaviours that are a poor response to what’s going on around them. It can be hard to spend time thinking clearly and deeply when the world is pressing us for decisive action.

I once worked for a vice principal in a college that was going through a very tricky three-way merger, his experience was very much that of establishing and managing fairly complex systems and procedures. As the pressure piled on he started organising audits of where furniture was located, how many chairs there were and the ratio of staff to the size of the staff room. This undoubtedly provided some sense of clarity for him, but it left the rest of his team with the challenges of dealing with far greater issues and problems. Overmanaged and underled perhaps? A poor response to the need to feel on top of things and in control.

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I’ve also experienced CEOs that have been very effective in creating a crisis where conversation and collaboration would have yielded better results. It fulfils a need to simplify the context and retain control but at the cost of shutting out the rest of the organisation. I have witnessed many similar examples.

The important lesson is that one frequent casualty of leadership in an ever-increasing VUCA environment is the absence of self-awareness, and making the mistake of objectifying the ‘world-out-there’ at the expense of understanding how we are constructing it.

Picking a role to play

Now coming back to the analogy of ‘the player in the fantasy game’ and given a choice of which roles to play (mindset, skills and attitudes) from a full range of options, I would choose three to help me deal effectively with both my internal world and the external VUCA environment:

  1. The Navigator: Part explorer, part experimenter, part guide. Having the ability to chart a course but anticipating the bumps and obstacles in the road that lies ahead. Having a good feel for the landscape and the confidence to lead through difficult terrain ignoring signs that instruct us ‘not to tread on the grass’.
  2. The Iconoclast: There is little chance of success if we don’t learn to ‘colour outside the lines’. The stock of knowledge we have must be understood, but we can’t defend it when it doesn’t address the VUCA environment. Traditional boundaries, relationships and assumptions may need disrupting in order for something more meaningful and appropriate to emerge. It is about having the courage to think and behave differently.
  3. The Bricoleur: The one with the craft and guile to reframe a combination of their experience and the things they have to hand (be they people, physical resources or ideas) and to recast them into something that works. It is providing pragmatic and sometimes makeshift solutions that are capable of moving us onto the next stage. It is the art of improvisation and ad-libbing that enables us to prosper in the adhocracy of many contemporary organisations.

I think that it is important to recognise that when playing these roles we are involved in a kind of ‘messy leadership’, a VUCA environment won’t lend itself to the easy solution, textbook technique or check-list. What we have done before is not necessarily a good guide to what we need to do now.

Finally, whichever role I choose to play or special insight I select to use, leading in a VUCA environment is certainly more about leadership than individual leaders. Leadership that is well distributed and widely shared. It’s about recognising that the insight and understanding of others – within teams, across organisations, communities and beyond borders – is essential.

It’s vitally important to come to some agreement in developing a language that enables us to share our understanding and experience and how we might then move successfully forwards together. And with the recognition that we are each important players in that game.

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