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VUCA Leadership in the Midst of a Pandemic

By: Jaya Kumar K

VUCA is a concept introduced by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus in 1987 and popularized by the U.S. Army War College at the end of the Cold War (1991). Since 2002, the usage of the abbreviation ‘VUCA’ has gone mainstream and is often used by businesses to guide leaders and implement strategic planning.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on how ‘disruption’ and ‘diversity’ is changing the way in which businesses operate. When we were discussing this in late February, little did we know that the business climate would change so dramatically later in the year! We are now faced with the task of trying to bell the cat, amidst volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, brought on by an unrelenting pandemic. ‘Bell the cat’ being hyperbole for attempting to adopt and adapt to disruption in the workplace.

As leaders, we have to be constantly prepared to embrace disruption, because there is uncertainty at every turn. An unprecedented global crisis like COVID-19 is a big leveler. Businesses that had contingency plans in place would find it easier to dust themselves off when this is all over and continue from where they left off. Others will struggle to find their footing again. But if this experience has taught us anything, it is that we can rely on analytical and empirical data or try crystal ball gazing as much as we want to, but the fact remains that ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’.

This unpredictability of business is why we need to unlearn everything that we have learned over the years and teach ourselves to manage the ‘unknown unknowns’. Make no mistake – we will always be at a disadvantage in this new business climate. We will constantly be trying to react to situations because we will never be able to plan for the ‘unknown’. But this is where business leaders will be forced to prove their mettle. The business challenges of the future will demand dynamic thinking, flexibility, agility, and transparency.

In order to adapt to a VUCA world, leaders need to be highly resilient and malleable. In addition to that, some of the other traits leaders must possess include being receptive to feedback, inviting challenges/disagreements, fostering a culture of collaboration, listening to other views, accepting that they don’t have all the answers, being open and transparent, leading by example, agility in adapting and anticipating changes, recognition & inclusion, and keeping the team spirits high.

All the four pillars of VUCA, has its own cause and effect. Here’s a brief look at how leaders must manage each of them:

  • Volatility: The dynamics of a business could change at any time – this could be brought on by both internal and external factors. Leaders must accept and embrace this change, in order to be able to adapt quickly to volatile situations. However, organizations should also plan and prepare to deal with volatility, to minimize the impact that it will have on the business. For this, the leadership must equip employees to react swiftly to change and make course corrections in real-time.
  • Uncertainty: In some situations, information is available at hand, but the outcome is uncertain – it could go one of two (or many) ways.More often than not, leaders find themselves in a state of decision-paralysis, because the information available is not sufficient to make complex decisions. This is why leaders need to surround themselves with a team that is capable of providing good counsel to help navigate the uncertainty. While the difficult task of making hard-choices rests with the leader, the team needs to investigate, gather, analyze and interpret information to define possible outcomes.
  • Complexity: There are multiple pieces to a puzzle, which adds to the complexity of solving the puzzle. Quite similarly, when it comes to business, there are multiple stakeholders, many moving parts, operational challenges, etc. involved, which makes it difficult to make sense of. In such a scenario, it is the leader’s role to uncomplicate things. They can do this through clear and precise communication, and by delegation.
  • Ambiguity: When there is no precedent or you have incomplete information, you willfind yourselffaced with the task of managing the ‘unknown unknowns’. In such a situation, making inflexible plans is futile, but being prepared is not.Leaders must experiment and prepare contingencies for every plausible eventuality, so that they’re not left shadowboxing when a crisis arises. We may even then not have all the answers, but at least it’s a start.

We now more than ever need to learn how to effectively manage the associated risks that comes along with a VUCA situation, to mitigate its effects. It’s also imperative that we reinforce the organizational vision and values, to ensure that we don’t stray too far away from the organizational objectives. A VUCA leader needs to be dynamic, transparent, and open-minded, so that they can instill confidence in their team members. Also remember, that as leaders, we must always strive to be the change, not just a part of it.

(The author is Vice President and Managing Director, Sabre Bengaluru GCC and the views expressed in this article are his own)


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