Two Metaphors to Navigate VUCA

The paradox of leadership shows in the controversial relationship between VUCA and SCARF. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. In our complex and unpredictable world, we find a widening gap between humans’ aspirations for certainty in a world of tendency to move towards more uncertainty.

People thrive for autonomy when the pressure for achieving results tends to make managers apply more control to abide by rules and regulations. The demands of SCARF are not in synchronicity with VUCA and thus imposing great challenges on leaders and the need for emerging leadership styles are surfacing out.

The conflicting demands between VUCA and SCARF and be more highlighted when we see the trend towards more complexity. In complex systems, the prediction of the future is a remote dream. Employees are uncertain about the future at the same time they work best if they are certain of the results of what they work on. So, is relatedness?

The team members shall not bond to each other unless their social brain is in a relaxed mood. If employees feel they receive unfair treatment, losing direction, feel no relatedness to each other, their social status is vague and what they do is unknown to them their performance shall decline.

The challenges for leaders to keep the consistency of their teams are mounting. Conventional thinking shall insufficient to tackle this challenge. VUCA presents leaders with wicked problems to deal with.

I suggest here two metaphors to help leaders use both critical and creative thinking to define the problems they face and to find solutions for them.

First Metaphor- Walking on Sinking Sands

Second Metaphor- Walking in a Desert

The two metaphors link to each other because you may run into sinking sand while walking in a desert.

Both metaphors present VUCA environment. Walking on quicksand or in a desert is never certain and you never know your way with any great certainty. The sand might sink and the traces you have to find your way may be swept away by external factors such as wind.

One great lesson from walking on sinking sand is the need to keep moving so that sand will not sink under your feet. Here comes the challenge of VUCA. It freezes people with its chilling effect. People are afraid of uncertainty, ambiguity. They freeze on the moving sand of VUCA and endanger themselves to sinking.

Walking in the desert with its complexity highlights the need to probe-sense- respond sequence of actions. The Bedouins in the desert of the Middle East and Africa have mastered the skills to do so. They probe the environment. They developed several observations that later proved to have a lot of sense. This helped them keep moving and not sink.

For example, Bedouins look for lasting landmarks such as their mountain peaks and basins act like solid reference points. These are stable points: they remain constant signs for Bedouin to find their way.

If there are not enough fixed signs, the Bedouin make their own. They always know they can go back safely.

Bedouins have used the wind direction to help them navigate their way in deserts. They know from the shape of dunes and the direction of wind where the wind blows.

Bedouins know the east and west from the sunrise during day times and from the stars at night in their directions.

They have coupled such observations with subtle memory and sixth sense to sense their way and make guiding maps in their imagination. Only after then, they respond.

There are always clues around us to probe and sense our direction in the VUCA desert no matter how simple these tools are.

Leaders need to invoke such thinking in their teams so that they do not feel lost in a desert filled with sinking sand. This is the situation business faces today.


Ali Anani
Ali Anani
My name is Ali Anani. I hold a Ph.D. from the University of East Anglia (UK, 1972) Since the early nineties I switched my interests to publish posts and presentations and e-books on different social media platforms.

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