David Denyer and Kim Turnbull James   

What is effective leadership?  Most people faced with this question describe the abstract ideals of leadership (vision, inspiration, influence etc.) or the attributes leaders are assumed to have (authority, charisma, authenticity etc.).  Books, academic articles and leadership development programmes have also invested significant attention on the qualities of leaders.  A rich array of leadership models, styles and competency frameworks help explain who leaders need to be, but existing leadership thinking says little about how leadership should be accomplished, particularly in the complex, collaborative, cross-boundary, adaptive work organisations are increasingly engaged in.

Leadership in VUCA environments

Leadership takes place in the context of problems and challenges and in an increasingly VUCA environment.  VUCA, a term originating from the military who discovered age-old practices do not always work in the 21st century, is being used increasingly to describe the modern business environment:

  • V = Volatility refers to the speed of change.
  • U = Uncertainty results from lack of predictability and unintended consequences.
  • C = Complexity is created by the inter-dependence of issues.
  • A = Ambiguity arises when things appear foggy and confused.

 Mobilising people to deal with a VUCA environment is at the heart of complexity leadership.

Our research and approach

We have interviewed senior executives in a range of organisations dealing with VUCA environments and have explored leadership with thousands of managers on our executive development programmes.  This has led to our four-step approach to leadership development.  Firstly, we review the leadership concept held by learners and their organisations.  Secondly, we surface and examine existing leadership processes, routines and interactions.  Thirdly, we work on learners’ organisational problems and adaptive challenges.  Finally, we work with the emotional and political dynamics of leadership in the system.  Our work reveals six core leadership practices that we believe are central to effective leadership:

  1. Discovering: Einstein once said that if he had an hour to save the world he would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.  Digging deep into the problem, the history, the context and (most importantly) the people involved is a central function of complexity leadership. This involves experiencing and observing the situation from multiple viewpoints and listening to diverse voices. 
  2. Framing [the problem and opportunities]: Identifying what needs to be solved and who might help in creating or generating a solution. Sometimes it is important to reframe or disrupt existing patterns by challenging the common (taken for granted) understanding of the problem.  Exploring the contradictory aspects of a confounding problem also provides the opportunity to create novel solutions shifting people’s mind-sets from seeing only either/or choices to both/and solutions.
  3. Systems thinking: Stepping back and seeing the big picture, considering the interactions between the parts of the system (human, social, technical, information, political, economic and organisational) in light of system goals. Viewing patterns and connections, examining knock-on effects and zooming in and out between components parts and the whole.
  4. Brokering: connecting other peoples’ interests to the work of solving the problem via a shared need that can be best satisfied by working together. Negotiating their involvement in the collective effort so that they are fully identified with the organisation’s purpose and collaboratively shape strategic change.
  5. Holding: maintaining productive tension. Whilst a degree of tension is needed to provoke change, any heightened emotionality needs to be contained within productive ranges. This means creating the capacity for ‘not knowing’, allowing emergence and reflection, with difficulties explored as learning opportunities rather than denied.
  6. Collective learning: Stimulating innovative ideas and new ways of working, drawing on multiple perspectives and interdisciplinary teams; co-creating with customers and consumers. Creating safe problem spaces for experimenting and prototyping and integrating and embedding innovation back into the formal system.

Those in leadership positions have a dual role.  First, they enact these six practices themselves.  Second, they create an environment that encourages people at all levels in the organisation to perform these practices as a matter of routine. 

The paradox of leadership

In a VUCA world, leaders need to direct and coordinate change yet specifying solutions and by creating visions and targets from the top risks alienating the very people who can develop solutions to emerging challenges. Leaders have to manage the tension between being the strong leader that people want to see during times of change and encouraging leadership at many levels and a capacity to co-create solutions and new practices that will sustain the organisation in the emerging VUCA world.

About Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.