Leading in a “VUCA” World

What is a VUCA World?

The word VUCA is really an acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. You would think this is a new term describing the recent events we have all faced. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn it created, and the social unrest, one would think VUCA describes it perfectly. Yet it’s really an old word.

Where does the term VUCA come from?

VUCA was first used in 1987 and based on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. It was the response of the US Army War College to the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s. Suddenly, there was no longer only one enemy threatening Western civilization.

Oddly, not having a common enemy would seem a calming effect. Instead, it created an unsettling sense of dread, as in ‘where do I look next?’

The World of Today

The COVID pandemic did not spawn VUCA thinking, but it reminds us just how hard things can be. It was felt long before we were subjected to massive shift changes in business and social circles caused by pandemic lockdowns and social distancing.

Neither an organization’s leadership nor its strategies are spared in today’s VUCA world. Experiences, dogmas, and paradigms must all come under scrutiny; it is no longer a case of finding the one way or the management tool: standards give way to individuality.

What got you here won’t get you there. This is a theme I’ve heard inside companies of all sizes. Leaders feel it, but are struggling to manage it.

You as a Leader

As a manager, you are responsible for the lion’s share of the decisions about the parameters that define how your organization can operate. The increase in volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity means that you and your business must seek new orientations and take a fresh approach to management. Only then can you guarantee positive results in changing circumstances.

The VUCA world challenges you to find your own way. You will need to understand the far-reaching psycho-logic and emotional impacts on your people.

How Should a Leader Respond?

First, and I would argue foremost, leaders in today’s VUCA world need to upgrade their leadership toolkit with empathy. Develop more empathic behavior – in short, be more concerned with humans and their needs. Under VUCA, meaning and purpose take a central role in business activities.

Dealing with your employees has added layers with VUCA. If you think you are under pressure, what about your employees who may not have as much information as you? They are looking to you as their leader to provide clarity and certainty. That’s not always an easy fix. Which brings us to clarity. The more clear you can make messages and instructions, the better. Remember, if you confuse you lose.

Crafting and delivering a clear message helps to reduce the VUCA for your team.

Communication must be highlighted as well. The days of hiding behind a desk just won’t cut it in any circumstance. You have to be out in front with specific, meaningful communication for your team, your peers, and your customers.

Solid and clear communication helps to cut through the complexity and eliminate ambiguity. The more you can do to define what a “win” looks like, helps your team focus and drive to succeed.

VUCA will test your Leadership

If you’ve been wondering what feels ‘off’ about running a team these days, it’s likely due to VUCA. The degrees of severity may depend on your situation, but we all have it.

I’m reminded of the frog in the pot story: The story says if you put a frog in hot water, he’ll jump right out. But if you put him in cool water and slowly turn up the heat, he’ll boil to death.

Don’t let VUCA be your boiling pot. Diagnose the situation and design your response to it.


Doug Thorpe
Doug Thorpe
With 25+ years in executive leadership, Doug is a been-there-done-that kind of leader. He has senior management experience in all major sectors; the military, Fortune 500, entrepreneurial, and non-profit. He has also enjoyed success as an entrepreneur, building several companies and non-profits. Doug’s clients realized significant cost savings, more effective operations, and higher profitability by using his business expertise. Doug provides executive coaching and business consulting services for executives and owners seeking fresh ideas for development of C-suite talent, high potential leaders, and team development. His firm is Headway Executive Coaching. Doug is the author of The Uncommon Commodity.

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  1. Educational article.
    Modern complex organizations are increasingly forced to deal with uncertain, turbulent and unstable, highly competitive and conflicting environments. An organizational model capable of governing complexity proposes to maximize connections and participation, leaves autonomy to each element, reduces control to the essential and minimizes procedures. Obviously the secret lies in the ability to relate to interpersonal relationships, because without effective communication nothing of what is indicated can be successfully implemented. The more connections you can make, the more opportunities you have to develop new and effective models.
    leadership is a human function, irreplaceable and cannot be delegated. Today, more than ever, it makes use of tools and computing capabilities that make information contained in an impressive amount of data intelligible, which can be processed by machines, but ultimately require decisions that involve judgment and ethical evaluation. It requires skills that the machine does not have, uses the machine to have evaluation elements, but makes decisions responsibly. Performing this task well is not simply the expression of an innate gift, but is the result of a process and a skill that can and must be acquired, then learned and trained.