Thriving in a VUCA world

Dec 15, 2017 1 Min Read

Some business leaders may not recognise the VUCA acronym – but all leaders have experienced it and will continue to experience it for the foreseeable future. For those unfamiliar with the nifty mnemonic, VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

In these political, social and economic times of unrest, it can be tough for leaders to navigate the choppy waters of industry and to be aware of the ‘unknown unknowns’ that lie ahead for the business world.

However, it is very much possible to prepare for any unexpected challenges and obstacles that are ahead. If you’re unsure of whether you’re affected by this VUCA world, let’s run a shortlist to see how many items you come up against in your daily dealings in the workplace:

  • A seemingly never-ending stream of emails demanding your attention.
  • Relentless challenges that seem to expand.
  • Challenging objectives, rising targets relating to sales and other related numbers or metric.
  • Countless meetings.
  • Expectations from customers, clients and employees that you’re pretty sure are impossible to meet.
  • Increasing demands coming at you from all directions.

Striving in madness

So, are you living in a VUCA world? Yes, unfortunately, we all are.

With that question resolutely answered, we turn to one that’s more pertinent to a leader’s situation and one that will hopefully yield answers with practical application: What can I do to thrive in a VUCA world?

Let’s take a look at each VUCA component:

  • Volatility describes the emergence of unexpected or unstable challenges, the duration of which is often unknown.

The challenges might not be difficult to understand, but they often throw leaders off-track.

  • Uncertainty impacts the cause-and-effect relationship, presenting a lack of information in general, such as when a competitor launches a new product.

Changes might occur as a result within the industry, but this isn’t set in stone.

  • Complexity presents a situation that is nuanced and has many variables and interconnecting components.

Predictions can be made, but the nature or magnitude of the challenge can give rise to tough times ahead.

  • Ambiguity is where you are likely to encounter ‘unknown unknowns’, such as when entering emerging markets or launching a completely new product or service outside your mainstream.

There are no existing precedents or frames of reference to call on.

Thriving in authenticity

To thrive in a VUCA world, distinguished management expert and True North author Bill George calls on business leaders to step up to the plate and take modern challenges head-on as they navigate increasingly-competitive and demanding markets.

As a proponent of authentic leadership, George insists that authenticity counts more than ever for leaders and organisations who wish to steady the boat and propel it forward to success.

In what he refers to as VUCA 2.0, George encourages leaders to recall and retain their sense of purpose and direction as a means of turning VUCA on its head and regaining control of the journey that lies ahead.

A new VUCA perspective

Let’s examine George’s VUCA 2.0 model:

  • Vision

Leaders should restate their true North, says George. What is the company’s mission and strategy – what are its values?

Once clear on the organisation’s vision, there should be a steadfast refusal to be affected by external events that might encourage leaders to move away from their overall mission.

The mission should be the navigational compass behind which all else falls into place.

  • Understanding

When unexpected changes inevitably occur, leaders should possess an in-depth understanding of their organisation’s strengths and weaknesses so that they can protect against any external storms and, at the same time, take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself.

To help with this, leaders must gather as much relevant information as possible from as many sources as possible. Reinforcing old views and existing beliefs could well lead to missing out on alternative points of view that might offer an advantage.

  • Courage

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. In a VUCA world, there is little room for leaders who aren’t willing to raise their head above the parapet and take risks.

On the contrary, the biggest mistake leaders can make in uncertain times is to keep their heads down, play it safe, and do things the way they have always been done.

  • Adaptability

Throughout the ages, success stories have always included large elements of adaptability. However, the pace of change is ever-increasing and, in today’s markets, there is absolutely no room for rigidity and old-hat management techniques.

Leaders these days need multiple contingency plans while providing strong and stable leadership that helps to cope with unexpected events whenever they arise.

Those who fail to adapt will end up being the losers of yesterday rather than the winners of tomorrow.

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Sandy is a former Leaderonomics editor and is now a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. As editor of, he has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.

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