What Does it Mean to Lead in a “VUCA” World?

A term originally coined by the United States War College, a “VUCA” world is one in which things are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Following the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, the VUCA framework took over where only binary options had previously existed. Eric McNulty from Strategy + Business* describes the four terms this way:

  • “Volatility reflects the speed and turbulence of change.
  • Uncertainty means that outcomes, even from familiar actions, are less predictable.
  • Complexity indicates the vastness of interdependencies in globally connected economies and societies.
  • And ambiguity conveys the multitude of options and potential outcomes resulting from them.”

Such chaos can make leading, in either the political or corporate world, all the more challenging. Leaders must adapt to the new normal by asking questions and finding new certainties.

Knowledge is the key to navigating the VUCA world. Don’t be afraid to ask exploratory and penetrating questions—and don’t be afraid to ask them again and again. By probing and asking relevant and deep questions, you can eliminate much of the uncertainty in your industry or organization.  Though the patterns may not be as constant as they once were, the new normal will start to reveal itself through the answers you receive from different stakeholders.

Once you’ve learned as much as you can, take McNulty’s advice and “create an island of certainty amid the VUCA turbulence.” Strive to make your leadership transparent and consistent so that your team is comfortable coming to you with questions and making mistakes as they navigate the changing waters around them. By being the constant in a VUCA world, you will build a team that is comfortable striking out and trying new things.

*Leading in an Increasingly VUCA World by Erik McNulty.

Cover image by timestock22

By Grace Goodman
Grace Goodman Assistant Director, Alumni Career & Professional Development