Brexit highlights the reality of the VUCA world, so what does this mean for our leaders?

Published July 7, 2016

The decision taken by the British electorate on June 23rd has sent shock waves around the world and caused dismay and alarm within the UK, but should it have done so?

The markets are reacting in a very jittery fashion as they dislike uncertainty, always favouring stability, but this reflects the fact that they and far too many people are unfamiliar with the concept of VUCA. This term which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, was coined by the US military in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall signalling the end of the Cold War. In attempting to identify the sources of future potential conflicts they began to appreciate that the world we live in today is highly unpredictable and is epitomised by this term VUCA.

Volatility describes a world of fast-paced change, which is accelerating ever faster, with no signs of it ever slowing down; Uncertainty refers to the fact that there is a heightened level of unpredictability, which makes forecasting events with any confidence is becoming increasingly difficult; Complexity describes a world which is so interconnected now that multiple factors can influence events in ways that it is difficult to anticipate; Ambiguity highlights the fact that when events occur, it is often difficult to understand why they did. All of this is of course unsettling, unless one recognises as some have started to do, that this VUCA state is permanent, it isn’t going to go away and some have labelled it as ‘the new normal’.

Indeed one of the most commonly stated mantras of those familiar with VUCA is:

“The only certainty is uncertainty!”

If we accept this statement, then we need to plan accordingly and this means that organisations of all kinds, including Governments, need to have leaders who can cope effectively in this most challenging environment. This means leaders who:

  • Can see beyond the fog of ambiguity and who can maintain a clear sense of direction/purpose in order to pursue the vision and keep others focused.
  • Are comfortable being uncomfortable and who understand their environment and themselves and therefore remain calm and provide reassurance to all around them when things get confusing.
  • Can manage complexity by providing clarity and communicating clearly what needs to be achieved, not how. General George Patton said: ‘Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity’.
  • Can respond quickly and adapt to changing circumstances such as market demands, fluctuating share prices, etc., by adopting an agile approach, whilst staying focused on the direction and then communicating early and regularly and thereby empowering their followers.

In the context of Brexit, this means we need leaders who can embrace change, manage it and not be frightened of it, as we are now in a world of constant, accelerating change. In particular, the characteristics given above suggest that we need highly agile leaders who can adjust their approach to different circumstances in order to remain effective. The quality that this requires more than any other is the ability to be a quick and constant learner, who can readily draw upon their experiences to define an appropriate vision and a course of action to get there, review progress on route, and make necessary course corrections to navigate us to our destination. Only with such leadership, can we be confident of safely reaching our destination!

Join us for a free webinar on Thursday 22nd September to find out more about VUCA and leadership – reserve your seat now >>

Author: Nigel Povah

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