Help Wanted: VUCA Leaders! Dealing with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity

March 8, 2022 Britney Cole


Our collective future is unfolding right before us. It demands a new kind of leader.

Consider life in this new era. An event happens on the other side of the world and its ripples nearly capsize our boats thousands of miles away. The pandemic is the latest example that we are more interconnected than we knew. A virus originated in China, a South African variant traveled around the world with disarming speed, and we resorted to social distancing, another round of vaccinations (or not), office closures, etc.

Now we are experiencing dramatic shifts in global markets and new technologies. A supply chain disruption roils countess markets. A new technology overthrows the process and forces us to react. These changes leave a path of creative destruction marked by the birth of start-ups and the fall of former Goliaths.

It is nearly impossible to predict what is going to happen next and how it will impact our lives. “Business as usual” already sounds like a quaint relic from the pre-pandemic past. We are now in the phase of accepting that many things will never go back to the way they were.

So what will the leader of tomorrow look like? Here are seven skills the VUCA leader must master.

Seven Skills of a VUCA Leader

1. Lead with a compass. The business world was once made up of workplace silos—functional or local, perhaps. Leaders knew their boundaries and were relatively comfortable with them.

The future organization will be flat and incredibly nimble. The VUCA leader has a bird’s-eye perspective of the business and is able to survey the landscape, identify all the moving parts, and understand how they are connected.

This 360o vision requires a leader with a clear sense of purpose and a deep understanding of an organization’s vision, mission, and goals. The VUCA leader makes sense of all this and helps their team see the bigger picture and how their work matters. And they have exemplary communication skills that allow them to communicate what they are observing with their people.

2. Innovate with a purpose. The VUCA leader doesn’t do a task out of habit. Micro-innovating is the norm. Using micro-innovations turbocharges creativity, unleashes the power of teams, and enriches the customer experience.

3. Be an agile shapeshifter. The VUCA leader pivots instantly. They are a tinkerer, not an order taker. They are constantly learning through both successes and flops as they keep up with the changing business landscape. Once they have surveyed a situation, they determine the best path forward.

Being an agile shapeshifter is tricky. It requires seeking multiple perspectives while also making sure not to become stalled by analysis paralysis.

4. Embrace imperfection. Knowing when a minimum viable product is sufficient and ready for feedback requires vulnerability and being okay with “just enough.” Consider the power of iterative improvements. Amazon, Meta, and Etsy are just three examples of companies that have dramatically evolved since their founding. Embracing innovation also means being willing to accept redirection, failure, and setbacks.

The VUCA leader knows that perfection is the enemy of progress. Chasing after an unrealistic ideal can result in missed opportunities.

5. Prioritize ruthlessly. The VUCA leader continually reviews their priorities and jettisons those that no longer make a meaningful contribution to their strategic goals. This requires knowing when to allocate resources. The VUCA leader understands the trade-offs involved in assigning people to projects that offer little return versus those that have great promise.

6. Be constantly curious. The aggregate amount of knowledge is growing so fast that the VUCA leader recognizes the improbability of being an authority on a subject. They partner with their people to seek smart solutions and don’t blame team members for their shortcomings. Instead of blaming conversations, they have learning conversations.

7. Never be satisfied. The VUCA leader doesn’t rest on their laurels. They understand a business world that is spinning ever faster doesn’t allow one to celebrate a success for long.

The new reality seems daunting. But the VUCA leader will meet it with poise and grace. I’m preparing myself for the coming future. What are you doing to get ready?


About the Author

Britney Cole

Britney Cole is Chief Innovation Officer and the Head of the Blanchard Innovation Lab and Experience Center. She creates an atmosphere of excitement and forward-thinking for clients who want to rethink what it truly means to unleash the potential and power in people and organizations for the greater good.

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