In a hyper-VUCA world, leaders need to do the opposite

In short, even in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, it is valuable – in fact, essential – for leaders to create environments that are calm, certain, simple, and clear, says Todd Cherches

As the saying goes, we’re living in an increasingly ‘VUCA’ world – one that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. in fact, we might even describe it as a ‘hyper-VUCA’ world – as we are simultaneously dealing with external ‘PESTLE’ (political, economic, sociological, technological, legal, and environmental) forces and changes that seem to be coming at us faster than the speed of light.

So, how are leaders to keep up? And what role must leadership play in helping organisations – and their people – to navigate these turbulent times and lead us to our desired destination?

In recent years we’ve seen a tremendous leadership gap. People are looking to be led, and in the absence of leadership, people will listen to whoever is willing to step up to the microphone.

As such, in times like this, people are looking for bold, brave, and visionary leaders – regardless of formal or designated role, title, status, or position – who are willing and able to step up to leadership.

And in this ‘VUCA’ world, what people need most is for someone to take that acronym and flip it on its head by seeking to foster an environment, a culture, and a climate that is its opposite: or what can be referred to as, ‘CCSC’ – which stands for: calm, certain, simple, and clear.

For, when it comes to VUCA, with CCSC each element’s opposite offers its antidote.

Calmness in the face of volatility

In the face of volatility, leaders need to try to create a sense of calmness. Yes, there is a lot of stress and unrest and frustration and anger out there, but an effective leader finds a way to create a sense of urgency, rather than a state of panic, and rather than trying to light a fire under people, lights a fire within them, spurring them to action. A good leader helps people to catch their breath, so that they can make better decisions and act more rationally and effectively. And find greater emotional health and balance in their lives.

Certainty when things seem uncertain

When things are uncertain, it is the job of the leader to create some degree of certainty. No, leaders don’t have all the answers. No one does. So, yes, there is still going to be a lot of uncertainty out there as our story is unwritten and our future is unknown. But as uncertainty is just part of reality, and creates a world of instability, it is the job of the leader to find a way to make people feel that they are still standing on a foundation of solid ground. Even Socrates said, ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ A good leader figures out a way to lead, even when he or she doesn’t have all – or, even, any of – the answers.

Simplifying complexity

In a complex world, leaders need to simplify that complexity so that people can achieve some degree of understanding. Creating frameworks and models to try to make sense of the world – what I refer to as ‘thinking inside the box’ – is one way to help us wrap our minds around the messiness of today’s realities. Simplifying does not mean ‘dumbing things down’ or stripping them of their subtlety or nuance, or pretending that things are simpler than they are. As Einstein said, we should try to, ‘make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.’ Or, as Emerson simply put it, ‘Simplify, simplify.’ And, in so doing, in figuring out a way to simplify complexity so as to make it more manageable, it will enable better decisions and lead to more effective actions. It is not easy, but it is necessary, for, as Da Vinci famously noted, ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’

Offering clarity within ambiguity

And, within the ambiguity, leaders need to help their people to gain a sense of clarity…so that they can somehow, even within the fog of current circumstances, find a way to see beyond the horizon. Leaders need to provide people with hope…and a ‘lens’ through which they can envision a world that is different from and better than today’s reality. Sometimes a leader needs to look through the telescope towards the future; and other times they need to take a more microscopic view of the situation. But either way, the leader must formulate an inspiring vision…and be able to articulate that vision in a clear and compelling way, helping others to see a way forward…and to envision, with optimism, the world of new possibilities that lies ahead.

So, in times like these, the leader who can turn volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity into a feeling of calmness, certainty, simplicity, and clarity, will inspire others to envision the invisible…while leading them to a future that, today, may seem impossible.

Lastly, as mentioned earlier, leaders need to lead. But it is also important to remember that leaders are, themselves, people…and not robots. They are people with feelings and fears, moods and motivations, good days and bad. But as a leader, they have a higher calling and a higher responsibility, for they hold the feelings and fears, and moods and motivations, of their people in their hands.

As such, leaders need to ask themselves this metaphorical question: ‘What is my “leadership weather report” today?’

When you walk into a room, are you a cloud of doom, and gloom, casting a dark shadow on everyone, and threatening lightning and thunderstorms?

Or are you a burst of sunshine that lights up the room with warmth and good humour, filling it with a spirit of hope and optimism, positive energy and passion, and making people feel good to be around you and glad that you’ve arrived?

Are you the kind of manager who makes people feel bullied and threatened and intimidated and scared? Or the kind who encourages and empowers people, boosting their morale and their confidence, and enabling, equipping, and empowering them to maximise their performance, their productivity, and their potential?

In short, even in a VUCA world, it is valuable – in fact, essential – for leaders to remember that unlike the weather outside, the climate you create inside is entirely up to you.

Todd Cherches is the CEO and cofounder of BigBlueGumball, a New York City-based management consulting firm specialising in leadership development, public speaking, and executive coaching.

He is also a Founding Partner of the Global Institute For Thought Leadership and a member of Marshall Goldmith’s ‘MG 100 Coaches’.

A three-time award-winning Adjunct Professor of leadership at NYU and Lecturer on leadership at Columbia University, Todd is also a TEDx speaker, and the author of VisuaLeadership: Leveraging the Power of Visual Thinking in Leadership and in Life (Post Hill Press/Simon & Schuster, 2020). Find Todd on LinkedIn.

This article is excerpted from the new book, Winning the War for Talent in the 2020’s, 11 Insights from the Global Institute for Thought Leadership

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