Leadership & Productivity

Board level strategy tips in an age of volatility: How to remain a great leader

5 min read

22 March 2019

The business sector has been hit by some massive changes in recent years, (cue tech innovation and globalisation). However, there are challenges that board level leaders face that remain the same as they were thirty years ago. I give you tips to navigate both traditional and new challenges that senior staff face in business life. Start by using the acronym VUCA. I'll break it down for you.

Over the last thirty years, I have been fortunate to work as a consultant at board-level in many large private and public sector organisations. Looking back, much has changed over the years due to the impact of technology and increasing globalisation. But quite a lot – such as the importance of individuals and relationships – has stayed the same.

Today, the business world is more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, (VUCA).

However, it is very noticeable that we are now living in a world which is much more VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) than ever before. VUCA consists of four dimensions, each with its own challenges for leaders. But knowledge is power, and if you understand what the challenges are, you can go about dealing with them effectively:

1. Volatility

This is about speed. Requirements can change fast or may appear very suddenly. The response required from leaders is often around developing the organisational capability to respond quickly to unexpected challenges – for example by developing flexible skills or stockpiling resources.

2. Uncertainty

This is about a lack of predictability. The requirement is understood, but it may not happen in that way or at all, making planning and decision-making challenging. The response required from leaders is around developing the organisation’s ability to understand the underlying causal factors and plan for alternative future outcomes.

3. Complexity

This is about confusion. The requirement is very complicated and has many interconnected elements or variables. The volume of information or the nature of it is very hard to assimilate and much of the detail is not understood. The response from leaders should be about developing the skills or resources required to make sense of the requirement.

4. Ambiguity

This is about gaps in understanding. There is plenty of information available, but it’s unclear what it all means. Leaders may face challenges that have no clear solutions – but they will have to make decisions anyway. The challenge for the leader is to manage ambiguity using data and judgement to protect the responsiveness of the organisation to change.

The responses to each dimension are different and demand adaptive innovation and ongoing changes in people, processes, technologies and structures. There are also several important personal skills that leaders must deploy to navigate a VUCA world. The first is to take a strategic perspective:

Maintain a focus on the big picture and long-term goals

This provides a compass that can be used to navigate shorter term turbulence and disruption. It’s also important to start to think in terms of what’s possible, rather than what’s probable. Leaders have often concentrated on understanding what has happened in the past so that they can apply the learning in the future.

A VUCA world demands agility, flexibility and innovation focused on the unexpected. A focus on learning (and ‘unlearning’) is important to drive innovation and new ways of doing things.

Develop your emotional intelligence

The next is emotional intelligence; VUCA places many new stresses on today’s leaders. The challenge is to lead the organisation to manage volatility, counter uncertainty, understand complexity and (most importantly) chart a course through ambiguity.

Emotional intelligence is also a factor in the leader’s ability to stay upbeat, to communicate the positive potential in the turbulence around them and maintain the confidence and enthusiasm of the team.

Be the leader, but be authentic

Finally, in order to build trust and followership in VUCA times leaders must also be authentic and values-driven. VUCA leaders face disappointments in an honest and authentic way and re-plan their approach to learn from failures, whilst not compromising their values.

It’s clear that this VUCA world is here to stay; it’s not something that can be ‘solved’ or changed. Leaders must not allow themselves to be overwhelmed or immobilised and they must do more than just respond piecemeal to individual elements of change. It’s up to leaders to act to equip their organisations and themselves to create their future, by navigating these turbulent times. It’s worked for me at my current company, and it can work for you and yours too.