There is no doubt that these are challenging times for leaders. Globalization, digitalization, disruptive business model innovation, and new technology were already contributing to a rapid and accelerating pace of change. The COVID-19 pandemic and the impending recession are only adding to an already daunting agenda for leaders. Today’s business context has variously been described as “VUCA”.
So, how are leaders to respond in these turbulent times, and thrive in the new VUCA context? It can feel like activities considered essential to driving organizational performance – such as strategic planning – have become mere exercises in futility. The situation may become so uncertain and unpredictable and complex that we may simply want to give up.
However, for leaders it is neither a time to become paralyzed by the situation, nor a time to act with brashness. An appropriate response starts with careful diagnosis and understanding – as the saying goes, “think before you act!”
As Nathan Bennett and G. James Lamoine pointed out in their 2014 work on organizational performance, by first understanding the nature of each of the VUCA components – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – and the differences between them, can one develop an appropriate response. Each component represents a distinct type of challenge and demands a distinct type of response.
Of course, often the components of VUCA are present in combination. The current COVID-19 pandemic presents a situation of great uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It is more global in scope, more profoundly impactful and far-reaching than any other crisis we have ever experienced. And, we still do not know enough about the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, thus making it all the more difficult to determine an appropriate response, both in terms of containment and prevention.
 What VUCA Really Means for You. Harvard Business Review. January-February 2014
“Never let a serious crisis go to waste…
It’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
– Rahm Emanuel, American Politician
The Implications for Leadership
In devising your VUCA response, you can use the same acronym as a guide for what you and your leadership team need to be focused on:
1. V for VISION, VALUES, AND VULNERABILITY
When conditions are changing rapidly and unpredictably, stay focused on the purpose of your organization, its vision, mission and values. Its goals and objectives – and the strategy to achieve them – may need to change, but the organization must stay true to its North Star as its guiding light. It is what will keep your people focused on the challenge ahead and the task at hand. Be your authentic self and allow yourself to be vulnerable in face of adversity, as it will instill hope and trust among employees in both you as a leader and in your organization.
2. U for UNDERSTANDING AND UNITY
During uncertain times, develop a good understanding of what is going on in the external environment and seek out new sources of information. Play to your organization’s strengths while minimizing its weaknesses. Be open to a diverse spectrum of viewpoints, by engaging directly with customers and employees and others who can provide an outsider perspective. At the same time, be a unifying force to your employees during uncertain times.
3. C for CURIOSITY, COLLABORATIVE, COURAGE, AND CLARITY IN COMMUNICATION
mmit to continuous learning by staying curious. New opportunities will arise in face of uncertainty. At the same time, develop a collaborative style of leadership, and recognize that you do not have all the answers. At the same time, have the courage to make bold and unpopular decisions, and communicate this with clarity and compassion.
4. A for AWARENESS, ADAPTABILITY, AND AGILITY
Develop a sensing and learning organization, one with a heightened awareness of its environment and the factors that influence it. Build resilience and flexibility in your organizational structures and processes so that you can rapidly adapt to changing external conditions. Consider various scenarios and commit to contingency planning for unforeseen events.
In the table below, I reflect on my own experiences in dealing with challenges in the aviation and air transport sector, that can otherwise be described as “VUCA” but that required their own unique response. This approach of first understanding the nature of the situation – whether it is volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous – presents a framework for an appropriate response.