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What qualities do leaders need for an increasingly VUCA world?

28 Jul 2020 By Opemipo Koshemani

Curiosity, creativity and critical thinking will all be crucial traits as organisations tackle a new normal post Covid-19, says Opemipo Koshemani 

VUCA was coined by the US Army War College in the 1990s to describe a new world of military engagement at the end of the cold war. It has since spread to the world of work as it provides a framework for understanding the turbulence organisations are facing in today’s environment and the challenges it presents to leaders. The recent pandemic has reignited the commentary about VUCA, which stands for:

  • Volatility – the speed and turbulence of change in the world
  • Uncertainty – the extent to which we can confidently predict the future
  • Complexity – the number of interconnected factors that need to be taken into account
  • Ambiguity – a lack of clarity about how to interpret something

The acronym has been embraced by business leaders as it provides a practical code for awareness and business readiness to view the challenges organisations are facing in today’s world. Globalisation, a changing political landscape, technological advancement and, more recently, a global pandemic, are presenting unprecedented challenges, globally, which are amplifying the elements of VUCA in the world of work and beyond. 

In a fast-changing environment, the leadership skills needed are changing just as fast. What may have worked in the past will not work anymore. So the focus is shifting to:

  • Agility and flexibility. The ability to respond and adapt rapidly to changes in the environment is an important skill during constant change. It is important for leaders to develop leadership agility, redefine leadership and understand how they can better flex their thinking. They must build flexibility into every process they have, bearing in mind that change is likely to occur and allowing for that, even if they don’t know what the change is going to be. It’s important to create agile organisations led by clarity of vision and effective communication, so the organisation can be very clear about its values and objectives but very flexible about how it implements capabilities and achieves that vision. 
  • Critical thinking. With an abundance of information available from a range of sources, the ability to discern validity within the data as well as misinformation, carry out logical enquiry and reasoning and weigh up alternatives will help leaders make well thought out decisions. Critical thinking is about being able to objectively evaluate information and how it should be used or whether it should be trusted.  
  • Curiosity. VUCA calls for questions – lots of them. Questions to ferret out nuance, that stimulate differing views and debate, that fuel imagination and analytical questions that distinguish fact from opinion. This helps leaders expand their perspective and their knowledge. With curiosity comes learning and new ideas; fostering diversity plays an important part in this too. Leaders need a diverse group of people to provide a diversity of thought and responses. And they must foster an inclusive culture where people feel free to open up, and contribute, authentically.  
  • Creativity can simply be a different way of doing something, approaching a problem or bringing a fresh perspective to a problem. With unprecedented challenges coming our way every day such as those presented by Covid-19, new ways of thinking and human creativity are more crucial than ever.  
  • Cultural competency is the ability to understand, communicate with and interact effectively with people across cultures. Organisations are becoming increasingly diverse and workplace leaders should recognise and respect multiple ways of knowing, seeing and living, celebrate the benefits of diversity and possess the ability to understand and honour differences. Culturally competent leaders who can interact well with others who might perceive the world differently to them can play a great role developing a more inclusive culture in their business. This has an impact on the success of the organisation and a culturally competent leader can add great value here. 
  • Collaboration. Leaders need to be able to interact and work well with others to help drive the company forward, collectively. Complex problems involve variables that cannot be understood from the perspective of a single discipline. With Covid-19, there has been a great deal of collaboration on an unprecedented scale. We have seen experts, such as healthcare professionals, economists, supply chain experts and engineers, integrate their specialist knowledge to tackle complex problems – in ways no single one of them could do on their own. Leaders must foster and lead this effort.
We will most likely be living with some form of social distancing measures for a while. And when we start to return to a different kind of normality, there will be other factors contributing to the VUCA climate in the world of work. Leaders must ensure their own wellbeing and empower their teams to do the same. They must be aware of the importance of looking after themselves so that they are sufficiently robust to enable and support the people they lead.

Opemipo Koshemani is HR business partner at UCL

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