Developing leadership capability in a VUCA world


When compared with the world of work before 1990 and the boom of the information age, there are many indications that the current socio economic environment can be described as increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous). 

Added on 04 May 2016 by Sharon Olivier

Developing leadership capability

The acronym VUCA was first introduced by the US military during the 1990’s and was then absorbed by the business world. VUCA has become a very topical way of describing the organizational and business world of the day. 

CEO research conducted by IBM in both 2010 and 2014, with a large number of CEOs internationally, found that the realities of the day are characterized by: increasing interconnected economies; societies and governments; globalization; technical advances (digital disruption); cultural diversity (IBM, 2010); and what has been termed ‘systemic disconnects’ by Scharmer and Kaufer (2013), all of which have increased VUCA in the workplace. IBM found that since their research project in 2004, ‘complexity’ had replaced ‘change’ as one the most important business challenges of the day.

Interestingly, the IBM research shows that organizations who perform poorly in a VUCA environment, as perceived by the CEOs, have a large 'complexity gap' referring to the extent to which they feel prepared or equipped to manage the complexity. They found that the top performing organizations perceive only a 6% complexity gap, compared to the 52% gap perceived by the poorer performing organizations measured by revenue! 

In 2005, Ashridge conducted research which is highly relevant to leaders facing the VUCA challenge. It asked the question:  

What do you know now that you wish you had known ten years ago?

This initial research, followed by more recent research have provided the following seven emergent leadership themes:

1. Sense of self

The overwhelming answer from senior leaders polled by Ashridge, was "self-knowledge". It revolves around the importance of high self-awareness of own strengths and talent, but also awareness of one’s own "hot buttons" that lead to the experience of "emotional hi-jacking" and negative emotion in the workplace. These are only discovered in relation with others, not in isolation, and need to be dealt with earlier rather than later. Statements include, “be true to yourself even if it’s unpopular; recognizing weaknesses can be a strength; being a leader is more powerful than doing leadership!”

2. Being comfortable with Ambiguity

Having the insight that certainty and agreement is a luxury which few have in today’s world, and the quicker one can learn to “flow with it” the better.

3. Power and Politics

The importance of building and maintaining a broad external network out the organization; of trust and being trustworthy. Statements include “yesterday’s enemy could be tomorrow’s boss”.

4. Stepping outside the box

Relating to playing the management role, statements include “rules are for guidance not blind obedience; don’t rule out something because it seems too simple”.

5. Relating to others

Themes emerged, relating to playing the leadership role and EQ, for example, “not being afraid to recruit someone who is better than you; the importance of understanding the motivational needs of staff; and that first impressions are not always right”.

6. Stepping up in building a career

Having the courage to “step up” to opportunities even if you don’t feel fully equipped; preparing yourself for something new and difficult. Statements include, “If only I had realized the value of having the courage to step up and take up opportunities as they arise, rather than being paralyzed by insecurity and focus on what other’s may think”.

7. Focus of energy

This relates to work/life balance and includes statements such as, “know when to stop”, “how not to get overwhelmed by work pressure” and that “something happens to you in your mid 30’s that changes your priorities”.

An approach to leadership development

These responses prompted the design of Ashridge’s flagship completely experiential program, The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge

This  program places participants in stimulating situations where they encounter the critical events that leaders say have shaped their careers. The research indicates that facing these challenges now and developing the strategies to cope with them, builds the ‘muscle memory’ required to thrive in an increasingly VUCA environment.

To experience this stimulating and immersive 3.5 day program and prepare yourself as a leader to thrive within the world of VUCA, find out more about The Leadership Experience.