Leadership in a VUCA World


Since 1991, the US War College has increasingly used the acronym VUCA in preparing officers for the 21st Century. This heralds a world that is “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous”, and it aptly describes what is happening in the global business world today.

Business leaders have entered a new era requiring new ways of leading. Traditional management methods seem no longer sufficient to address the volume and velocity of change we are seeing.

Nor is business running as usual. Leaders must deal with growing uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in their decision-making environments. CEOs have little idea where the next diversionary force will come from: a new disruptive start-up, a technological breakthrough, a societal push, a government decree, a terrorist event, or indeed a natural disaster—all potentially of vital importance to themselves, their employees, and their stakeholders.

The widely unexpected decision by the UK to withdraw from the European Union in some form or another has caused enormous uncertainty, leaving many companies planning for a broad spectrum of eventualities.

The recent demise of Monarch Airlines was brought about by a run of bad luck which put the CEO, Andrew Swaffield in a situation from which he could not successfully extract the company. The airline was heavily committed to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt but in November 2015 the Foreign Office banned UK airlines from flying there because of security fears. Then in 2016 Monarch and its rivals shifted focus to Spain and Portugal in light of a worsening situation in Turkey, depressing fares in a key market. And finally, the company’s buying power was badly hit by the depression of Stirling after its home nation voted for Brexit. He did not foresee these dynamics, and as they arose, he and his leadership team did not take the necessary action to get the airline through.

Samsung’s leadership crisis situation which resulted in their Electronics chief executive Kwon Oh-hyun to resign is another example of a dynamic situation leaving the leadership behind. In his resignation statement, he said: “As we are confronted with unprecedented crisis inside [and] out, I believe the time has now come for the company [to] start anew, with a new spirit and young leadership to better respond to challenges arising from the rapidly changing IT industry,”

For speed, one need look no further than the case of Harvey Weinstein. After The New York Times and then The New Yorker released their respective reports on his alleged sexual harassment and assault of numerous women, it took less than a week for him to have become a pariah globally. One could argue that the speed of change has always had the potential to impact on a huge scale but the power of social media has provided a very substantial added pressure.

The new species of leader is not someone who knows where they are going but someone who has already arrived. They have developed their skills in “how to be who they truly are” which enables them to navigate this VUCA world with dexterity.

They have traversed the most difficult journey of them all, which required developing and harmonising both the head and heart to bring about true serenity at their core. In so doing, they have ignited the life force—the inspiration and passion that truly serves the whole. 

Future leadership requires us to be guided wisely through an aware connection with consciousness. We cannot accomplish external goals that are genuinely integrated with the needs of the whole unless we have first addressed our inner work. 

A mature head is not full of knowledge, concepts and ideology; it has developed the humility of not knowing and the full operation of the intuition.

A mature heart is not full of sentimentality and attachment. It can handle life and death choices while staying in touch with each, for the good of the whole. 

When these dualities—often referred to as masculine and feminine—are unified in a person (whether a man or a woman), they become self-generating. Harvey Weinstein appears to be an example of an extremely immature masculine combined with a totally suppressed feminine. Donald Trump is another. These are of course extreme examples taken from one end of the spectrum, nevertheless they demonstrate the necessity for inner balance, and are cases we can learn from.

So, to return to our core, we need to “drop” the beliefs, values and stories that no longer serve us. We need to give up our comfort blankets and step out into the world with a rawness and vulnerability that displays our true essence. In this space, authentic truth can arise, our vitality is fuelled by our life force, and thus leadership as a path of love in action naturally emerges. In embodying our mature selves, we enhance the lives of those around us, as well as our workplaces and the business in which we are involved.

If we want to succeed in the VUCA world, this is the essential upgrade we need to make to our internal ‘operating system’. It is our ability to access and maintain higher levels of energy and consciousness to enable us to surf this new and unstable reality.

What would a business look like that actively integrated this enlightened approach to leadership?

What kind of influences do you believe this approach can have?

Are you curious to learn more?