VUCA Leadership – Building Resilience in a Changing World

Reframing a crisis to take back control

If you didn’t know that we live in a constantly changing world, you do now. 2020 has been a year of many crises, including:

  • Climate change

  • Social unrest

  • A bizarre presidential election

  • Coronavirus – which continues to rage on as we write this article

  • The forced exodus of employees from the traditional office to working from home

To negotiate a constantly changing world, resilience is key. To build resilience, VUCA leadership is mission critical.

Resilience protects organizations

Research (such as the whitepaper ‘The positive effect of resilience on stress and business outcomes in difficult work environments’ 2017) has shown that high-stress working environments – in which demand is high, people have little influence, and are offered little support) – unfavorably affect all outcomes, while resilience protects all outcomes. 

Given that we operate in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), it follows that leadership must be adapted to help employees build resilience. 

Why VUCA leadership?

VUCA leadership will help executives guide themselves and their teams through internal and external crises. What we find is that people can initially adapt to a VUCA environment. They absorb what is happening and adapt to it. Eventually, though, they reach breaking point – a point at which their overwhelming psychological need is for certainty.

At this moment, the emotional response can cause fear, anxiety, and confusion, and suppress common sense. People feel insecure. They stop taking risks. They stop creating.

When leading through change, a leader’s primary objective must be to reframe events and circumstance, shape thinking, and massage the emotional response. VUCA leadership creates greater certainty, thus developing resilience.

Reframing – the key to resilience

When we are in the middle of a crisis (and for many, this includes the upheaval that may be caused by organizational change), our explanation for that crisis determines our response. Given that our emotions at this point are running wild, it follows that our response is likely to be irrational.

Our ability to remain resilient depends on rationalization. Leaders can help their people to be rational by reframing what is happening and therefore helping their teams to take back control. It is this control that helps to calm the emotional response and build resilience to the VUCA world.

In his book ‘Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present, Bob Johansen reframes VUCA as follows:

  • Where the environment is volatile, provide vision

  • When the future is uncertain, deliver understanding

  • Reduce complexity by providing clarity

  • Negotiate ambiguity by being agile

Delivering reframing

How do leaders reframe VUCA? Here are four strategies to deliver to people’s needs for greater certainty:

  • Providing vision

Explain that while what is happening may appear to be unique, it isn’t. We’ve been here before, survived and emerged stronger.

  • Delivering understanding

Our views are often fixed by what we see, hear, and read around us and from others. In this way, it could be that we experience what others wish us to experience. Take the coronavirus pandemic as an example. We are fed data, statistics, and stories of catastrophe and calamity. What if the headline of the day was not ‘50,000 new positive cases’, but ‘A record 800,000 test negative for COVID’?

There are many ways to view situations and circumstance. A leader must help their people to view things differently.

  • Providing clarity

Explain what is happening, why, and how. Breaking down complex circumstances into component parts will help people to rationalize the effect on them. Understanding is crucial to eliminate resistance to change.

  • Being agile

Help people understand that their fear is based on an irrational worst-case scenario (experts are usually wrong). Bring them back to reality and provide guidance on what can be done, and how different options may deliver a range of different outcomes.

In this, it is important to respond (not react) to the evolution of circumstance, evaluate the situation, and deliver an evolving, not rigid, strategy.

In Conclusion

In a crisis, it is natural for people to rush to irrational conclusions based upon worst-case scenarios. These conclusions evolve into irrational, emotionally charged reactions. As a leader or manager, your job is to combat these reactions, before they become embedded within the organization.

Reframing enables people to take back control, and it is this sense of control that develops the resilience needed to dominate in a VUCA world.

We help organizations and their leaders and managers to master the personal nature of change and embed the strategies and methods to energize change. To find out more, contact Primeast Forward Focus.


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