If you’ve picked up a news article in the last few weeks—maybe even the last few years, you might have a sense of how rapidly things have been changing in the global economy. Some might say, “It’s crazy out there!” Perhaps that’s true to some extent. In the business world, a crazy world is what we call a VUCA world.
In this two-part video series, I revisit what it means to live in a VUCA world and explore the skills we need as business owners and leaders to thrive in such an environment.
What is VUCA?
As explained in a previous video, VUCA is an acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Volatility describes the intensity of fluctuation (or changes) over time. Uncertainty describes the unpredictability of events. Complexity describes the factors that influence a situation—how many they are, how often they interact with each other, and whether they are interdependent. Ambiguity corresponds to the ambiguity of a situation or information.
Put simply, a VUCA situation is one that creates a lot of disruption. Think of the covid-19 pandemic. The effects of the pandemic were complex, it produced a lot of ambiguity, uncertainty, and volatility. It’s a very uncomfortable situation to be in because we’ve never experienced it before. It leaves us disorientated and, particularly in the very early stages of the pandemic, at a lost on how to move forward.
However, despite the challenges brought by a VUCA situation, we need to move forward. In crises, we need a leader who can motivate and compel people to think and act in a way that will solve problems and move the team forward.
What kind of leader is that? What skills should a leader develop and possess to survive and thrive in a VUCA world?
There are six:
- Confidence in ambiguity and uncertainty
- Solutions-orientation and ruthless prioritisation
- Learning agility and cognitive flexibility
- Empathy and a people-first approach
- Ability to communicate well and provide clarity
In the first of this two-part video, I discuss the first three: self-awareness, confidence in ambiguity and uncertainty, and solutions-orientation and ruthless prioritisation.
Leaders need to be self-aware. Self-awareness means knowing who you are, what you can do, what you want to do, what you cannot do, and what you don’t want to do. It entails knowing your strengths and your weaknesses. It also means aligning your actions and decisions to your values and what matters the most to you.
More importantly, though, having self-awareness means being aware of our emotions. You are self-aware if you understand and acknowledge your emotions, whether positive or negative. You are conscious of your emotional triggers, and you know how to manage them. You can distinguish between your gut feel and your emotions. You don’t allow feelings, particularly extreme emotion, to cloud your judgment and decisions. You decide and act despite your emotions because you choose to follow sound logic and decide based on your values.
During times of uncertainty, we look to leaders who are measured in their response and are in control. We need leaders who can regulate emotion so that they can think clearly. Self-awareness in leaders allows them to think with clarity, to focus on things that they can control, and use what they can control to solve problems.
Confidence in ambiguity and uncertainty
Leaders who want to succeed in a VUCA world need to be comfortable and confident despite ambiguity and uncertainty.
There are ways to develop confidence. It begins with encouraging experimentation and innovation in teams. They push their teams to focus on making things better. But with experimentation, failure is also inevitable. This means leaders must develop a healthy view of failure. They accept that failure is part of growth because we learn more from failure than we do in success.
Leaders also need to learn how to become comfortable with and not be prejudiced towards change. We need to understand that there are opportunities in change. And this is what sets great leaders apart from the rest during tough times—it’s being able to focus on finding or even creating opportunities when things change.
Solutions-orientation and ruthless prioritisation
When crisis hits, it’s easy to get overwhelmed because nothing seems to be going your way. The leaders who thrive in a VUCA situation set themselves apart by avoiding getting overwhelmed. They do this by focusing on things that matter: on finding solutions and ensuring that anything we do serves towards that goal.
Leaders who thrive focus on solutions, not on problems. They focus on making things work, not on what is not working. They focus on what they have that they can work with, not on things they could have had or what they wish they had. They focus on things that they have control over, and not on things they cannot. The question they ask is simple: what can we do now to solve this problem or to get us out of this situation?
Being solutions-oriented requires focus. To focus, you need to prioritise ruthlessly. When great leaders decide on which tasks to take on, they categorise their tasks into four and then decide how to accomplish them:
- If the task at hand is urgent and important, they do it immediately.
- If it is not urgent but important, they make time for it and create a schedule on their calendar.
- If it is urgent but not important, they delegate it for someone else to do.
- If it is neither urgent nor important, they delete it off their task list.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when everything appears chaotic—but we need leaders who can focus on what matters. The value in these skills: self-awareness, confidence in ambiguity and uncertainty, solutions-orientation, and ruthless prioritisation is in providing leaders much-needed focus. In a VUCA world, we need leaders who get things done by focusing on what is important: solving problems, improving how things get done, and finding, even creating opportunities, when things change.