The VUCA leader: A new world of learning and development

VUCA is no longer a new phenomenon; the term was originally coined by the military in the 1990s and since the global financial crisis it has been increasingly used to describe the global business world. VUCA is the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment that many global leaders and organisations find they are operating in.

Is the concept of VUCA still relevant today? Is it a concept that business leaders genuinely struggle with or is it simply a recent trend in management literature and the coaching industry? Recent world events including BREXIT, the US election, terrorist attacks and the critical political situation of North Korea suggest that a VUCA environment is more prevalent than ever - and business leaders as well as politicians need the right skills and mindset to navigate and respond to the turbulence around them.

"To succeed in a VUCA world, We must expend energy in the areas that produce the highest payoff for our organizations.  Our first priority must be developing and articularting a clear vision to drive our organizations’ actions."   General George Casey

The traditional role of a global leader has been to identify opportunities, evaluate risks against those opportunities, develop strategy, motivate and lead people, make efficient business decisions – and to protect their people from uncertainty and ambiguity. In a VUCA environment, leaders have to struggle with a lack of predictability across political, economic, financial and technological structures, national security and global trade. Traditional management methods no longer seem adequate to address the level and speed of change and increased pressure can mean leaders are unable to respond quickly or appropriately enough. Leaders may jump quickly to a mistaken conclusion and take their organisation in the wrong direction or they may respond by doing more of what they have always done rather than adapting to new circumstances. Others wait for more data and analysis before making decisions by which time circumstances have changed again. 

Decision-making based on incomplete and changing information means that strategy development and execution need to work in tandem and that organisations need to be constantly ready for change. Leadership teams need to create a culture of continuous lifelong learning in their organisations so that they have the knowledge and capabilities they need to manage in  a VUCA environment and that they are preparing VUCA leaders of the future.

What are the qualities that global leaders require to lead their organisations through the VUCA-world?

  1. Vision – In uncertain and changing times, organisations need more than ever a clear vision of their direction with strong values aligning them to their end goals.  A successful VUCA leader needs to establish and communicate a clear corporate vision and ensure it is understood by all staff, particularly across distance and cultures.
  2. Understanding – A VUCA leader needs to have the ability to understand multiple perspectives and be ready to seek out opinions that are different to their own. They should be sure that they appreciate the diverse views of their employees, customers and other stakeholders and can be open to new approaches and creative problem-solving.
  3. Co-operation – Successful VUCA leaders engage with their teams and build a culture of collaboration and commitment.  A good VUCA-leader actively listens to their employees’ opinions and includes them in their decision-making processes.   High levels of trust and empowerment mean teams are more likely to stay focused on the vision despite changing circumstances and go the extra mile when necessary. 
  4. Agility –The ability to flex and adapt while also remaining focused on the organisational goals key to success in the VUCA-world. Leaders need to deal with the unknown, make decisions quickly, adopt new approaches and create multiple contingency plans rather than a linear long-term plan.  And they need to develop this agile working culture among their teams and future leaders.

How intercultural training and coaching come into play….

VUCA leaders never stop learning and developing; they require a new leadership mindset and should be ready to work continuously to develop their skills. Intercultural training and coaching can play a major part in leadership development programmes in any organisation working in a VUCA environment:

  • One-to-one coaching helps leaders to reflect and examine their current approaches to leadership. Intercultural assessment tools can assess individuals’ levels of openness, personal resilience, attitudes to change and ability to work with multiple perspectives. Developing an action plan enables them to focus on the skills they need to develop and practise flexing their current stye. 
  • Intercultural training focuses on building self-awareness, understanding multiple perspectives and adapting behaviours in unfamiliar environments.  Organisations that provide intercultural training are more likely to benefit from employees who are adept at conflict management, creative decision making and problem solving.
  • Excellent communication skills are essential and communication skills training can enhance the VUCA-leader’s ability to engage with stakeholders and send a clear and transparent message on the mission, goals, values and expectations to teams worldwide. 

With thanks to Sandra Glowania

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