Drs Ido van der Heijden and Paul Hughes, Praxis Centre for Personal Leadership Development

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity — or VUCA as we may more commonly know it — was a mnemonic coined by the US Army War College in the early 90s. Over 20 years later, it is becoming as commonplace and popular in business as it is on battlefields. In leadership and management circles it is used to describe environments or contexts where often the traditional ideas and approaches to leading and leadership are unsuitable. Taking a VUCA insight can help enrich our understanding of the frameworks and leadership practices essential to effective leadership in these contexts. However within a VUCA context there are a number of leadership tensions. 

Firstly, many of our leaders in organisations have been taught business tools, models of thinking and leadership approaches based on decades of research into…non-VUCA problems. These methods still have a great general utility. But by many accounts VUCA environments are more commonplace than when much of the canon of modern leadership was written, describing different approaches to different problems. So when the ‘learned’ approach or behaviour (unsurprisingly) doesn’t get the desired or expected result, the leader can unjustly direct that anger inwards; despite ‘doing the right thing’ they are left with frustration and anxiety. In a VUCA situation the old ways of leading might not always work.

Secondly, leading in a VUCA environment challenges many of our learned assumptions about the way organisations and leaders within them operate. Leaders are typically expected to provide clarity and certainty about what will happen, for the creation of strategies and outcomes to be achieved. But in a VUCA environment leaders can find themselves with followers complaining the leaders is being too prescriptive and inhibiting the discretion needed to ‘work things out’. But when the leader changes tack and allows the freedom requested…they are met with more complaints that the objectives and targets aren’t clear! So which is the correct approach? Paradoxically both are. Regardless of whether the leader provides clarity or freedom, VUCA environments may be situations where whatever they do is never the right answer: only the least wrong. That is a lot of tension for even the most stoic and mature leader to carry.

Finally, the increase in leaders facing VUCA environments is symbiotic with the growth of technology. Bringing great benefits it also brings rapid change and complexity in the systems we work with - and within. The world is shrinking and more connected than ever before, with emails, social networking and the cloud meaning matters that once took days now take seconds. An organisational crisis can be in the world’s inbox before the leaders have been formally informed.  

So finding yourself leading in a VUCA environment appears to be a ‘new normal’. While the resultant tensions reach all, in particular it places a burden on those who need to exhibit leadership. So how can a business school help you about succeed in a challenging VUCA environment? The right outlook, tools and models is a good start, as featured in David Denyer and Kim Turnbull-James’ article. But it may demand even more. While new knowledge can support how you understand your environment, you may also need to change how you relate to it. That insight, wisdom even, doesn’t always come from new knowledge but may need to emerge from a better appreciation and connection with how you relate to yourself first. 

Through our Praxis Centre for Personal Leadership Development, Cranfield School of Management has worked successfully and consistently in this area for decades. Over the last 35 years, we have been exploring the best ways to psychologically develop individuals and groups of executives in ever more complex environments. All development involves new external and internal knowledge. At Praxis we focus less on leadership development through new external knowledge and more on how people develop themselves.

We have found that agility and resilience, vital in a VUCA context is something that emerges not just from what you think, but also how you feel, appreciate, understand, conceptualise and process your environment. Helping people to feel more secure within themselves I’ve found to be key to helping them achieve a more authentic and real sense of self belief. After leaders have gained that foundation we are better able to support them to not only understanding their environment, but also to enhance how they relate to and with it.

From this robust groundwork emerges the confidence to deal with the paradoxes that exist within a VUCA world and the unique leadership challenges they present. Research has shown time and again that helping people know what to do is quite straightforward. But helping them have the courage to do it, the agility and resilience, when the paradoxes are in front of them and not in the classroom, lies at the heart of the difference between developing leaders in name, and leadership in practice.

So when exploring how you would develop yourself to confront and overcome the inevitable tensions within a VUCA environment, the answers may not just lie in new knowledge. Environments may be complex, but so too are people and there are a myriad of ways that leadership can be developed for enhancing resilience to deal with them. But keep an open mind: the answer may lie within.

The world is difficult and it is messy. And when dealing with the challenges we face within it we can over reach for external stimuli: whether this is learning new theory or knowledge, seeking comfort in irrational ideas, or more self-destructive ways. Relying on a false sense of security is often the mistake people make, when they would be better served by stimulating how well they understand themselves. So when dealing with complexity and your leadership resilience it can be, quite legitimately, all about you.

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