Leading Through VUCA

These are the characteristics of the wrong leadership styles to handle VUCA, ie

- volatile (erratic, changing behaviour - this will drive people away)

- uncertain (continually changing directions - this will frustrate people and lead them to question your capabilities)

- complex (aloofness - people don't understand you or your expectations)

- ambiguous (lack of clarity - people become disengaged)

Leaders need to be direct, understandable, reliable and trustworthy, ie

  Philosophy Values



Be direct in complex situations

(transparency in information communicated and received will gain mutual respect;  collaborative efforts)

Be understandable in ambiguous situations

(need clarity of purpose, direction, and indicate responsibilities)




Be reliable in volatile situation

(follow-through on what is said and agreed to; willing to accelerate positive momentum)

Be trustworthy in uncertain situations

(invest in people; keep teams engage; involve partners; speak to understand; act with respect always)

Some ways to do this include

- know your guiding leadership philosophy (keeps you centred and serves as a guiding force forward despite all the chaos)

- create effective listening posts (use a variety of stakeholders to provide data, information, etc on trends, innovation, etc; need to understand the meaning of the  information, etc)

- engage a diverse team (diversity of talent to analyse, solve and act, ie a mixture of perspective and experiences, ie do not seek sameness; engage people from diverse backgrounds and capabilities)

- envision what the 'other side' could look like (activities need to create both motion and momentum; communicating, with clarity, a vision of what the other side looks like will help you get there; understanding that the status quo is not the preferred position)

- develop an offense while maintaining your core

(This"...There is a balance point. The old business provides the cash flow, customers, and brand to build the new business. At the same time, the old business cannot be the albatross to prevent the development of the new strategy..."

Jon Mertz, 2014

It is okay to jettison businesses that are no longer needed.)

Two examples of using VUCA (Covid-19 & Start-ups)

i) Covid-19

In late 2019 and early 2020 reports were coming out of China of a new virus that was infecting humans, eg Covid-19. It would later sweep the world and become a pandemic.

In early 2020, a group of UK universities came together using VUCA to explore how to handle Covid-19.

Each VUCA component re Covid-19 was summarised to provide a common perspective as a basis to develop their unique



(quick action is needed to events outside your control)



(future unclear and non-predictable)



(dynamic networks with confusing/conflicting relationships)



(action without certainty of outcome)

Participants were asked to best describe their response to Covid-19 in one word (see diagram below). Responses were analysed for frequency and weighted; with the most frequent in large print, ie under volatility, resilience; under uncertainty, understanding; under complexity, informed; under ambiguity, risk-taking.




(source: https://www.ucea.ac.uk/news-releases/blog/19may20/ )

Participants agreed to focus on 2 of VUCA's components

- complexity (as there were many interconnected parts, with limited information available and situation was unpredictable and overwhelming)

- volatility (while the challenge is unexpected and of unknown duration, it is not beyond comprehension; decisions will be made on incomplete evidence).

Need to focus both on the present and future, ie the pandemic will end. Additionally, an understanding of what lessons we learnt so that better able to handle the situation next time.

NB People and organisations will be judged not by what they said, but by what they did.

ii) Start-ups

The start-up environment is full of VUCA, ie

"...Technological innovations and easy information access will continue to create exponential customer needs that never existed before which are the prime drivers of start-ups..."

Vijay Kambhammettu, 2016

The future is not an extension of the past. In a non-VUCA world, organisations can

"...succeed by directing, predicting, knowing the answers, controlling, managing, and doing more of the same..."

Vijay Kambhammettu, 2016

Any entrepreneurial world requires foresight to create new insights to solve new problems with actions.


With nature and dynamics of change, its dramatically escalating rate and speed of change and the associated risks of instability and flux, volatility demands a willingness to take action, to explore and probe in changing conditions. But volatility can cause fear, risk-aversion and 'back to basics' reactions.


The lack of predictability, and the sense of not knowing what the outcomes of even known changes might be. To operate successfully in uncertainty, you must develop a wider sense of the events and conditions surrounding us. On the contrary, the inordinate amount of data collected could lead to execution paralysis. This needs to be balanced with some level of risk taking.


The intricate relationship of systems and their parts, the opposite of simplicity and the multi-faceted effects of multiple factors, drivers, and influencers. Dealing with complexity requires us to stay focused on what we are trying to achieve and to be flexible and creative in how we carry out our intentions. But complexity can drive the unproductive behaviour of scapegoating and black-and-white dualities.


The fuzziness of reality and the state of an event or situation that is capable of being understood, made sense of - or misinterpreted - in many different ways. Ambiguous conditions demand agility and require that we create conditions that foster decision-making and innovation at the front lines. However, ambiguity often induces doubt, distrust and hesitancy in decision-making. And it can stifle innovation..."

Vijay Kambhammettu, 2016

The above quote can be summarised in the following table:

VUCA Drivers Effects Responses
Volatility Change (its nature, dynamics, rate and speed) Risks, Instability & Flux Vision (take actions and probe challenges)
Uncertainty Unpredictability, potential surprises & unknown outcomes Direction paralysis owing to information/data overload Understanding (wider and different perspectives)
Complexity Task correlation, multi-faceted effects & influencers Unproductive & dualities Clarity (key focus plus flexible and creative)
Ambiguity Ideas vs actual & misinterpretations Induce & distrust; lapses in decision-making; hurts innovation Agility (decision-making & innovation)

NB in summary, the dynamics of VUCA are

"... - when confronted with volatility and uncertainty that leave you feeling vulnerable

    - being vigilant - avoiding unintended consequences and unquestioned assumptions which amplify complexity and ambiguity - and

    - by understanding and being willing to create and use intentional and localised plans we can increase our collective agility..."

Cindy Weeks et al, 2020


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