• Fiona Deehan

Leading through VUCA

Firstly, what is VUCA? No, I'm not referring to a nasty foot-related thing!

Credit: Shutterstock

VUCA is a concept that originated with students at the U.S. Army War College to describe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the world after the Cold War. And now, the concept is gaining new relevance to characterise the current environment and the leadership required to navigate it successfully. Ironically, I spoke about VUCA and leadership last year at an event, but I certainly wasn't thinking about leadership in the current global pandemic context. At that stage, VUCA was referring to the exponential change in technology, ways of working and living that businesses, organisations and people were facing. However, much of what I spoke about then still stands so I thought I'd share it here.


Let's clarify what I mean by a 'leader' and 'leadership' firstly. We all hold leadership roles in different areas of our lives - at work, at home, in our communities. Leaders are not just those who have the title, leaders are anyone whose example influences the behaviour of others, and regardless of title ,we can all choose to 'lead from where we are'. Often, we don't consider ourselves leaders in our roles as parents, friends, colleagues and community members, but we are, even if accidental leaders. Intentional leadership is making a choice about the impact we have on others. Pause and think of a leader you admire - what is it about them that you admire? What attributes do you see in them that you think makes them great at what they do?

I'd also like to divide leadership into two areas - leadership of self and leadership of others. Leadership of self is considering how your thoughts, feelings and actions impact yourself. I also describe this as considering how you look after yourself, your wellbeing (physical and mental) and this matters, because it directly influences how you lead others. 'Do as I say, not do as I do' - doesn't work in parenting, or any other leadership context! How can you credibly lead others if you are not demonstrating what you are asking of them? Leadership of others is intentionally considering the impact of your choices, thoughts, feelings and actions on those you lead.


Here are three attributes I work with my coaching clients to develop to strengthen their leadership muscles.


1. Self-awareness

People with high self-awareness understand what makes them tick and how to respond effectively. They have more direction, purpose, influence and success in their professional and personal lives. In fact, according to Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, 83% of people with high self-awareness are top performers, while only 2 percent of bottom performers display this trait. Awareness is the first step to change and a willingness to develop awareness is a willingness to grow, learn and improve. Three ways to develop self-awareness are to keep a journal, practice mindfulness and ask for feedback.


2. Purpose

Purpose is a crucial component of leading people through VUCA. Leaders can counter volatility with vision because creating a compelling vision and values for people will give them a clear focus and help them react quickly to change. The second part of this is to align what people do and their strengths directly with this vision, so that they know their contribution is valued, relevant and impactful, therefore they are engaged and aligned – they care!

Think about….

  • What is the organisation’s mission and values?

  • What behaviours in the organisation demonstrate this mission and values?

  • What are the personal values and strengths you and your individual team members possess and how do these feed into the behaviours, values, mission and vision chain to create that alignment from personal purpose to organisational purpose?

It’s almost like an invisible thread weaving from personal purpose, strengths and values through to the organisational purpose – truly connected and engaged people, which now more than ever (with remote working and reduced in-person connection) is so valuable.


3. Courage

Courage and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown shared her definition of vulnerability as ‘risk, emotional exposure and uncertainty’ – I think it explains it pretty well, right? In a room full of military personnel she was presenting to, she challenged the group to give one example of courage where they did not see ‘risk, emotional exposure or uncertainty’. There was silence in the room for what seemed like a long time. Eventually, one man in the group and said ‘3 tours ma’am…not one example’. So based on this, vulnerability is a pre-requisite for courage. Vulnerability is not weakness, nor is courage about being tough.


We need courage now more than ever as it takes courage, therefore vulnerability, to make decisions that have to be made, but may have a negative impact on people. It takes courage to be kind and empathetic when sharing bad news. It takes courage to say 'I don't have all the answers, but let's see if we can figure this out together.' It takes courage to be innovative, creative and willing to try new things and new ways without any guarantees. And that's the world we live and work in right now. Courage is grown through practice, being vulnerable and by growing self-awareness and purpose.


You have a choice how you lead at this time. I asked earlier for you to think of a leader you admire. Thinking of that person now, do they demonstrate the three things I’ve just talked about? Do you?

On a scale of 1-10, rate how well you think you do each of these (self-awareness, purpose and courage) and then identify what steps you need to take and skills you can work on

to move you closer to a 10 (if you’re not already there…of course!).


Here are some ways you can develop these attributes:


  • Coaching with me - give me a call/email to arrange an initial free 30 minute discovery session

  • Leadership workshops - Progress People are my leadership development partner so give me a call/email to find out more (the Legacy Leadership program is excellent and we are developing a second complimentary leadership workshop that will be available soon; we offer public and inhouse options)

I'd love to hear any thoughts or questions reading this has evoked in you, so feel free to get in touch.

Credit: Julian Laplanche

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