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What are the critical qualities leaders need to demonstrate in this VUCA World?

By Anne Houston, Senior Associate Consultant

Are we in a battle or a war? Who or what is the enemy and what will victory look like? How does the VUCA leadership model (developed originally by the US Army in response to the Gulf War) offer insights on what we need to draw on as people and as leaders in this current crisis?

COVID-19 definitely meets the definition of a VUCA environment; Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. In responding to this external environment, Johanssen developed an antidote which suggested that leaders require the following qualities; Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility.

My (our) experience of supporting leaders in this current VUCA world, suggests that there is a different set of VUCA qualities that are more critical for leaders right now. Values, Us, Care, Adaptability.

Values - what is important to us in our life and our work? Holding on to and talking openly about the set of values which are our ‘rock’ and ground us can be a source of comfort and re-assurance for ourselves and for our teams. As leaders, this gives us a clear focus on what is important. Asking ourselves ‘why we do what we do’? is, as Sinek acknowledges, a question that can help leaders create conditions whereby staff are aligned with the organisations objectives and motivated to work towards current and future success. Currently, it is all too easy to become distracted and diverted from the big picture and go down unhelpful rabbit holes chasing unrealistic outcomes which are not in any way consistent with our own values. Keeping focused on the ‘why’ will provide focus and keep people grounded.

Us - who is my us? A sense of belonging and mutual support provides the emotional glue – and is vitally important right now. Right now, who or what we are connected to may feel different. What support we need and who we need to give support to might also be different. Leaders need to find ways of connecting people in order that everyone’s ‘voice’ is heard, and that vital links are made. Those staff feeling more of the pain from the current situation (by being overwhelmed with work or by being furloughed), those bringing in key intelligence from clients or stakeholders that will provide helpful and critical direction, and those who feel less directly affected currently. You may need to make sure that certain voices are allowed to rise above others, regardless of status or role. For Snowden and Boone this is about opening up the discussions – the current complex context requires more interactive communication than at any other time. As a leader how do you create/recreate ‘us’? How do you foster the right different connections between teams and groups of people?

Care - taking care of self and others is crucial here and now. Letting go of perceived pressure to react in the right way and do the right thing will be key. There are no right or wrong answers. The ‘be kind’ emphasis is helpful and being kind to yourself must be the starting point.

More than ever, Goleman’s idea of creating a positive Emotional Bank Balance with colleagues is needed. Paying attention to what is going on in our colleagues lives and sharing our own insights and stories will be an investment in building a strong Emotional Bank account. For leaders who have invested, making a withdrawal on this account when significant changes and buy in are required as the situation develops in the coming weeks and months will be crucial.

It can be easy to overlook the need to continue to invest in relationships right now, and how we show that we care as leaders will look different for different people/situations. For some, it might be through providing them much greater autonomy to get on and do their job without close oversight and management. For others, it may be through extra support measures and access to resources. Demonstrating that you understand that different people need different things from you as a leader, and that you can ‘tailor’ your approach to they need from a caring leader is a critical quality.

Adaptability - adapting to an ever-changing set of circumstances requires a leader who is prepared to give people permission to fail fast and learn fast therefore enabling quick decision making. Dweck in her work on Growth Mindset, talks about the importance of failure as a route to success, believing that the word FAIL equals - First Attempt In Learning. However, that also means being comfortable with making mistakes along the way and avoiding any kind of blame culture. The best leaders in this situation will be those who admit they don’t know everything, admit their own mistakes and encourage mistakes in others. Encouraging technological and cultural innovation is needed, as is an environment of ongoing learning and sharing of learning. Focusing on the learning gained from how we adapted and reacted to these situations will be key to how we emerge from this. What have I learned about myself, my team and my stakeholders that will make me a better leader?

So, we may feel like we are in a battle, a war, a fight to the end. But one thing is clear – we are not alone. Leaders across the world are being challenged to demonstrate these VUCA qualities (Values, Us, Care Adaptability) – what do you need to do to show up?


Anne Houston has over 25 years experience working as a Senior Leader within the public sector, most recently as CEO of an SG arms length organisation. She has worked as a Leadership Development facilitator and Executive Coach for the last 12 years.


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