How To Lead In The VUCA World

Have you ever heard about the VUCA world? VUCA is an acronym: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. It is a concept that came from the US Army War College in 1987 to describe the world after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell apart. It means that the world has become unpredictable and complicated. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you can do nothing to be better prepared to live in the VUCA world.

Sunnie Giles describes the complexity and interconnectedness of today’s world on an anecdote of how a fine for a Tunisian fruit vendor led to Brexit. She notes that in December 2010 Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in Tunisia, was fined for not having a permit to sell his produce. Given his 200 dollars debt and as he couldn’t pay, in desperation, he set himself on fire. Those who witnessed it took pictures and videos and shared them on social media, where it spread like wildfire, and the Arab Spring began. It then spread from Tunisia across the Arab world and even to Syria, where the president decided to fight back and a civil war started. That then led to a flood of refugees to surrounding countries and to Europe, including the UK, where it compounded dissatisfaction of its citizens with the world they lived in and ultimately resulted in the Brexit referendum.

This sequence may be a stretch, and things were even more complicated than this, but it shows how incredibly complex, volatile and unpredictable our world is. A couple of decades ago nothing of this could have happened. No mobile phones, no social media, no easy way to travel long distances.

So let’s dissect the VUCA world and ask ourselves how we can deal with it.

Volatility – volatility is characterized by the unexpected and unstable nature of the world around us. Things keep changing fast. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t predict them or prepare for them. Often you can prepare for the inevitable change well before it comes.

Uncertainty – sometimes you do have a decent understanding of the cause and effect and why something is likely to happen. Yet, there is a level of uncertainty. You expect certain results, or you know that change is coming, but it is not guaranteed. Presence is not always clear, and the future certainly is uncertain.

Complexity – nothing in life is as simple as it seems. Things are interconnected, influence each other, and may interact in ways difficult to predict. The more you learn about the world around you, the more data you have, the better you can cope. Unless you let the information overwhelm you.

Ambiguity – some things are inherently unpredictable as the lines between cause and effect can be blurred. Often there are no precedents, and you don’t even know what questions to ask to prepare for the change. These are the unknown unknowns. There is a lack of clarity and awareness about the specific situation.

The VUCA world has a number of negative characteristics. It can drain people’s motivation and make them anxious. It can lead to bad decisions or paralyze decision-making altogether. It requires constant adjustments and, therefore, can overwhelm people and organizations and lead to toxic cultures.

It is all about context

To lead in the VUCA world, you need to understand and explain its complexity and interconnectedness, which means you need to lead with context.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines context as “the words that are used with a certain word or phrase and that help to explain its meaning; the situation in which something happens; the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens.”

Leading with context starts with you and your self-awareness. You need to understand your own values, beliefs, and biases to understand how you interact with the world and how your communication impacts those around you.

Context will help you set the right direction and then explain the “why” to those you lead. It is essential to share the purpose and reason for being and frame it in a big picture so everyone understands how they impact the world around them.

Context will help you to adapt to change. When you understand the big picture, it is easier to predict a change, and you can be more agile and adjust as needed.

Context also gives you the confidence to set the direction and lead the charge even during uncertain times. You may not have all the information available, but because you see the big picture, you can make educated guesses and make the necessary decisions.

In Leaders Make the Future, Bob Johansen suggests fighting volatility with vision, uncertainty with understanding, complexity with clarity, and ambiguity with agility. Again, vision, understanding, clarity, and agility are all about context. Vision acts as a compass and can spark motivation. Understanding of interconnections makes them transparent and can flip anxiety into productivity. Clarity then leads to simplicity and focusing on the right things. Agility or adaptability then supports innovation and builds resilience.

Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, came up with a similar concept on how to lead in today’s world. He calls it VUCA 2.0. The same acronym with a bit different meaning. He also starts with Vision, as everyone needs a direction to follow. Then comes Understanding of the organization’s capabilities and the opportunities out there. Courage is then a way to take on those unexpected opportunities, take risks and make bold moves. Adaptability then helps the leader to respond quickly to the ever-changing environment.

Putting it all together

In the end, to successfully lead others in the VUCA world, you need to understand the context and the consequences of your actions and inactions, anticipate potential issues and accept that some things are unknown or not under your control, prepare for alternative outcomes and watch out for yet unknown opportunities. In short, lead with context, be prepared, and accept that the world is not under your control.

What is your take on the topic? Have you ever heard about the VUCA world? How do you lead in such a world? What tools and techniques are helpful? Do you believe context is the key? What is missing from the presented concepts to make them work for you?

Photo: geralt /

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Categories: Leadership

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