Rise to the challenge: How to be a great leader in a VUCA world

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26 May 2022
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

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The best leaders develop the direction and vision for their teams, while setting the tone and atmosphere of the organisation. They should motivate, inspire and bring everyone along with them. This is all much easier to do while your organisation experiences good times and smooth sailing. It becomes a bigger challenge to be a calm and steady figurehead when everything feels unsure.

The world is much less stable than it used to be. From the world health crisis, international conflicts, global economic challenges and more, we’re certainly living in challenging and unpredictable times. A common shorthand for all this is ‘VUCA’ – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. The term is something of a catch-all for times of sudden, unexpected change and unclear futures.

Living in this sort of climate can be anxiety inducing and worrying at the best of times. But what are you supposed to do when you’re the leader people look to for direction and clarity? We’re here with some important steps you can take to lead your people through to a successful future.

 

Understand your decision-making systems

One of trickiest parts of leading in a VUCA world is having to make decisions which affect others. With no clear guidance, how do you do it? We’ve recently written much more detail about decision-making through ambiguity, so we’re not going to repeat it all here. However, a large part of the fear people face with VUCA is feeling lost and having no idea how to make choices without information – especially when others are looking to them for guidance. Just by understanding how your brain makes its decisions can remove some of that fear which can fog your judgement and start actively managing the process.

Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman,1 explains that – when it comes to decision-making – we have two systems in our brains: 1) Fast and Reacting, 2) Slow and Thinking. They both have important roles to play and understanding them will help you understand how decision-making changes under VUCA conditions.

The ‘Fast and Reacting’ system in our brain handles quick decisions and reactions. It doesn’t take up much energy, working largely unconsciously, relying on previous knowledge and experience. This is where many of our inconsequential, basic or routine day-to-day decisions happen.

The ‘Slow and Thinking’ system covers the bigger and tougher decisions you come across. It takes over when we want to actively focus on a particular situation, person or problem, weighing up what we already know and craving any extra information. Everything from setting the future direction of the company to who to hire, fire and promote, and where to spend money are all active decisions which require specific and direct consideration. You can’t rely on habit to make those choices.

 

Look for points of clarity

Under typical conditions, these two systems in our brain work very well together. However, one of the challenges VUCA scenarios pose is that you often have no past experience to rely on and no useful information. No projected results, no expertise and no obvious path ahead, leaving neither decision-making system with much to offer.

The counter to complexity and uncertainty is to find clarity where you can. This can act as that little light in the darkness, or compass point to help you navigate. The first step in this is to stay calm and in control, and reframing your feelings from uncertainty to problem-solving. Then, start looking for what information you can find, ultimately basing your decision on what you can discover.

Think about your problems and tasks, breaking them down and simplifying them down as much as possible. Having a set of bite-sized and easy to follow steps will feel much different than one large item on a to-do list, that you don’t know how to complete. It will also help you recognise your pain points, and to see where the issues are going to be.

The more leaders know their organisation, people and processes, the more confident they’ll feel when problems arise. If you don’t know what’s going on at the best of times, you’re setting yourself up to struggle when something goes wrong. The better you know all aspects, the more clarity you’ll have in periods of general uncertainty.

 

Keep clear lines of communication

As a leader, your actions can affect all the people around you. They look to you not just for direction but for clarity and confidence. If you show uncertainty, this will filter down through the ranks and impact the whole team. Even when you’re in a tough spot, you want to show that you’re still calm and in control.

It’s therefore important to stay in contact and share what you can. This will be a balancing act between being completely open and keeping morale up. If things are tough or uncertain, people have a right to know. If it seems like jobs may be at risk or company finances are about to take a big hit, it’s unfair to keep people in the dark. Lying about it, and creating a false sense of security, will only make the blow harder when you have to tell them.

On the other hand, you don’t want to appear out of control. You can say that there are a number of options ahead and you’re still formulating a plan for the best course of action. You probably don’t want to say that the future’s looking very rocky, and you have absolutely no idea what to do next!

Be there to answer questions, keeping your door open for people to talk to you. Try to be reassuring when you can and don’t be afraid to say when you don’t know the answer. Throughout this whole process, it’s important you prove you’re trustworthy and your word is reliable. This will give your team confidence when you give them news, whether good or bad.

 

Bring your people together

The strongest teams are ones that have a united purpose and plan. Under ‘normal’ conditions, it’s relatively easy to keep everyone on the same page. Your organisational vision should guide everyone towards the same goal. Effective leaders bring their teams together as a single unit towards that vision.

Keeping people together in this way is, we accept, easier said than done, even under the best circumstances. When you’re faced with unexpected challenges, especially public ones, it becomes much harder. If your people are already feeling anxious, due to ambiguous or uncertain events beyond their control, don’t compound this by giving contradicting information or too many changing instructions.

Along with clear and careful communication, it’s important to present a united front with others in leadership positions. The easiest way for a team to falter is if they don’t know what the guiding vision is, who’s in charge or what’s expected from them. If you have multiple managers all saying different things to their teams, fractures and misunderstandings quickly develop.

If you’re getting information or instructions from someone else, make sure you fully understand them before disseminating them further. Ask questions and push for clarity when you need to. Similarly, when you’re sharing information with others, make sure everyone understands what you’re saying and what’s expected from them.

 

Listen and learn from everyone

The best leaders should always be listening to their teams. Even if you technically outrank someone, that doesn’t mean you always know better. There’s no room for this kind of ego in business. Everyone has different experiences, knowledge and instincts, you never know who might have an unexpected solution.

When it comes to complex and unknown challenges, this is even truer. If you really don’t know the answers to the problems you face, don’t be afraid to ask for help. For example, your salespeople probably know your clients better than the sales manager and will have key information about how they’d react to particular events.

This is also a way of bringing all of your people on board and getting buy-in to new plans. In volatile situations, you want as much information as possible, but you also want your people to come along with you on that bumpy road ahead. By seeking insight from your people, valuing their views and getting them to help shape the plan, they’ll feel a greater sense of commitment and motivation.

 

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are all terms leaders dread. They take away any sense of comfort or control and make the future unknown. But, that doesn’t mean you can freeze and do nothing; VUCA scenarios are times to step up. By understanding the role a leader plays, becoming mindful of your decision-making processes and how you communicate, you can keep your people calm and bring them on board for a successful future.

 

For more information on how we can help your leaders become even better, take a look at our Learning Solutions.

 

1 Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. USA: Penguin