Complex times means we need to develop leaders with vision

VUCA Leadership. Volatility Uncertainty Complexity Ambiguity. Magnifying glass on office desk.

Graham Clark explores a term many know well, VUCA, but flips the script and focuses on the positive solutions developing leaders with these skills can bring

Business leaders are continuing to battle the seismic shifts in the workplace since the pandemic, with changes in how people are working, the war for talent and growing concerns around employee mental wellbeing. Throw in the rapid advancements in technology and AI, and leaders could be in for a rocky ride as they steer their business through choppy waters in 2024 and beyond.

As leaders try to take control of an increasingly uncertain and volatile landscape, many end up behaving in more risk-averse ways, which can lead to a high-demand and low-control environment, and this is a recipe for stress and burnout for staff.

One solution is to change their leadership style and move away from traditional ways of doing things to embrace something more innovative and creative.

Why agile leadership will win out

The acronym VUCA, meaning Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, can neatly sum up the current business environment. First coined in 1987 VUCA accurately describes today’s complex business environment in which leaders can feel helpless and insecure.

Although under pressure, they often lack the knowledge or the time to develop and practise new ways of working. Instead, they focus on short-term ‘crises’ rather than taking the longer view. Driving change requires traditional ways of leading to be reassessed. Agile leadership, which holds flexibility, values, and clarity at its core, is essential when navigating a VUCA world.

This requires leaders to retain the ability to execute effectively but also be in ‘experimental’ mode from time to time. Understanding different situations require diverse ways to manage them is critical to turning this volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity into a competitive advantage.

We suggest turning the VUCA acronym on its head to focus on the solution, not the problem, so leaders might what to instead think about VUCA as Visionary, Unconstrained, Considerate and Authoritative.

This is not intended to be a catch-all description of what it takes to be a great leader but a timely reminder of how a leader can maximise the opportunities our current world brings and minimise the risks.

How to become a VUCA leader

  • Visionary

    It is easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on the short term when times get tough, but to maintain vision leaders must present a clear, compelling purpose and direction for the team and the wider organisation. They need to tell a story, tell it well and tell it often.

    This involves focusing on the key goals, the impact the business wants to have, why this is exciting and how employees will benefit. Leaders should adapt the way they communicate this vision to different people based on insight into their audience’s needs and concerns. The team needs to feel that the vision is the right one – it needs to be sold as well as told.

  • Unrestrained

    It is important for leaders to be flexible, adaptable, and open to fresh ways of doing things. This means not being constrained by current processes and structures, and being willing to try innovative approaches, take calculated risks and dedicate resources to finding new ways to tackle things.

    Leaders who capitalise on the opportunities that change brings are those that constantly look for innovation, both inside and outside their organisation. True innovation is about creativity and execution. It is not just about finding novel ideas – it is about rigorous analysis, planning, and practical application.

  • Considerate

    Uncertainty and change makes most people feel anxious. Additionally, stress levels may be high from the pressures the team are under doing the day job. Leaders need to take time to get to know people and their values, needs and concerns – reaching out to the different groups within the organisation. They listen and understand with openness, respect, and concern, and ask for change with sensitivity because they have insight into their teams’ world, values, and the pressures they are under.

  • Authoritative

    This is not about ‘my way or the highway’, VUCA leaders demonstrate confidence in their skills, versatility and capability, and have faith in their organisation to thrive in a challenging world.

    They also know their own personal limitations. They are open about these limitations and their personal development needs as well as how the team could do a better job. They know part of being considerate is to be clear about the changes needed and to make tough decisions kindly if people cannot adapt.

Vision of the future

Embracing a VUCA perspective, redefined as ‘Visionary, Unrestrained, Considerate, and Authoritative’ can equip leaders to guide teams effectively through turbulent times. It is not just about identifying problems but adopting innovative solutions, developing open communication, and demonstrating empathy while maintaining confidence and adaptability. By embodying these qualities leaders will be more able to capitalise on new opportunities and lead their teams towards success.

Graham Clark is Managing Director at professional coaching firm The OCM

Graham Clark

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