VUCA in Leadership: Adapting to Change

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 27th October 2015

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in the world of leadership.

There is an old expression, allegedly a Chinese curse, that says “may you live in interesting times”. Here in the 21st century, we certainly do. So what does this mean for leaders?

Unfamiliar territory

Recent work by Professor Darren Dalcher suggests that in the 20th century, we had more familiar problems in a more familiar context. In the 21st century, however, our previous experiences are of minimal assistance, as many of the decisions we face are unfamiliar.

VUCA in Leadership

The very capabilities that have got us to where we are today are the ones we now need the least. The people who are in the positions of most power and influence are a product of 20th century thinking, where certainty ruled and the tendency to command and control was seen to be appropriate.

Does this mean we need a new type of leader, with new skillsets? Perhaps so. There are a number of strategies we might consider:

1. Gather more data to make this uncertain future more certain

2. Accept the uncertainty and volatility and become more agile

3. Ignore the volatility and plough on regardless

4. Try to (over)simplify the complexity to make it easier to grasp

I fear that answer two is the one we need most, but that the other three will be the ones chosen by the majority of leaders and organisations.

The trouble is, our past experience may not help us in the VUCA world, but it’s been hard won and so remains very hard to abandon. We’ve lived in a world of data, rationality, numerical targets and defined processes for so long that it’s difficult to drop everything and say “Ok, let’s get agile”.

But it’s time to let in new ways of thinking. Here are some of the biggest changes we need to adapt to as leaders.

A new kind of intelligence

20th century thinking was concerned with concrete intelligence, the ability to recall and deploy certain knowledge. Think about Mastermind or University Challenge: both are exercises in concrete intelligence. They represent what we think ‘clever’ looks like: we think it means ‘well educated’ and ‘knowledgeable’.
Unfortunately, being well educated isn’t hugely helpful to most organisations in the 21st century. It’s almost as though we’ve promoted all the people who can speak fluent French, only to discover that we now need to speak German. Their skills are now largely irrelevant.

As opposed to concrete intelligence, a VUCA world demands ‘fluid intelligence’; the ability to use one’s mental capacity to think creatively and intuitively through difficult issues and disparate arguments, to visualise possibilities and solve complex problems. Alongside this, emotional intelligence is increasingly important.

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Validating vocational skills

So how do we prepare leaders for a new understanding of intelligence? It probably needs to begin at school. In an age where facts can be obtained on demand from a smartphone, the possession of specific knowledge must be given less significance. We all have access to the majority of knowledge, so it is the ability to apply this to real situations that is by far the most important now.

If you ask most employers which they’d prefer to employ, someone who knows a fair bit about several (often irrelevant) subjects, or someone who has proved they can perform relevant tasks in the workplace, I think you know the response you’ll get…

Yet the possession of a degree in anything, however irrelevant, is still considered above vocational qualifications in a huge variety of roles. This mindset needs to change, and it needs to be consistent from education to employment. In most modern roles, and especially in leadership, the ability to evaluate information and formulate a response is more useful than the ability to calculate the area of a trapezoid shape.

Valuing adversity

At The National Centre for Strategic Leadership, we have a saying: ‘The road to enlightenment is paved with adversity’. Our experience has been that the most promising leaders have often had to overcome some major obstacles. They’ve learned to trust themselves through experience, rather than to have the blind self-confidence that comes from easy success.

If the economic meltdown of 2008 showed us anything, it should be that a sustained period of easy success leads to low resilience and an absence of crisis management skills. We need to avoid that facile hubris that crumbles in the face of genuine difficulty.

We need to stop valuing arbitrary knowledge over the ability to conquer real challenges, an invaluable skill in any leadership role.

Creativity, not compliance

Compliance is another quality that has long been held in high regard by employers. In a VUCA world, organisations need to show that they value risk-taking, creativity and the ability to think differently. Yet so many of them appear to value diligence and conformity so much more.

This is affecting the type of people they recruit and retain, and marginalising many of the most creative and talented. Because they don’t fit the mould, creative people are seen as difficult and unpredictable, hard to pigeonhole and harder to manage.

We need to get better at identifying and holding onto real talent. So, rather than seeing these people as loose cannons, perhaps it’s time to embrace change leadership, and encourage innovation.

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