Successful Leadership in Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) Times

A must-read post from BDI Board Member Dr. John Reynolds on how nonprofit leaders should approach VUCA times.

From Michael J. Tomlinson (MT), CEO and President, BDI

Read Time: 9 minutes

Attention, Leaders! What is it going to take to grow, to pivot and adapt appropriately, and to thrive in this unpredictable and unprecedented climate? How can you lean into the traits it takes to lead successfully: vision, understanding, courage and agility?

Please, read on.

At BDI, I’m blessed to have the counsel and support of an accomplished and committed Board of Directors who themselves are operating leaders in the common field of Christian nonprofits.

Over the coming months, I’ll be highlighting some of the applicable wisdom with which they so generously share with our team.

In addition to serving as President of Los Angeles Pacific University, an accredited online Christian university, Dr. John Reynolds is an experienced international strategy consultant focusing on board governance, strategic thinking and planning, organizational change, and executive leadership. He also serves as our board chair.

John’s blog, Excellent Leaders: Thoughts and Tools to Resource Excellence in Leading, consistently provides on-point, researched and nuanced guidance for leaders looking to grow personally and to help their organizations navigate change. It’s this area of focus specifically – resilient leadership in unpredictable environments – that dominates most of our conversations.

Today, I’m pleased to share the first of John’s multi-part series that provides critical insight and guidance for our focus as leaders. Even before we decide what to do next, we must have clarity about what we must be next – and identify the leadership characteristics and traits that will deliver the mission critical results we pursue.

Specifically, in a world rocked by cultural, political, economic and social change that brings unprecedented Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – successful leaders must excel in Vision, Understanding, Courage and Agility.

VUCA leaders in a VUCA world

VUCA, an acronym first used in 1987 (most sources citing the US Army College) stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, and describes our world well. Today, leaders, their organizations, and their strategic priorities must adapt and thrive in a VUCA world.

As leaders we are held accountable to our stakeholders for impact of purpose, significance of effort, and sustainability in success of our organizations in this dynamic world. This VUCA world demands leaders who are Visionary, Understood, Courageous, and Agile.

No one can deny (unless living on a deserted island) that the world has changed over the last 15 months, and it is the dawn of a new era. COVID-19 was indeed a black swan event. However, as significant as the pandemic is, if we look through the “PESTEL” model lens, we note political upheaval in global leadership changes and uncertainty (US elections, BREXIT, four elections in two years in Israel), China’s celebration of a century of communism and a growing resurgence of global influence and change in Hong Kong, Putin’s perennial term of office and the list goes on.

Economically, we have experienced two global recessions in less than 15 years, unemployment, threats of unprecedented inflation, growing gaps between advanced and emerging economies, reduced output (GDP), and increased national protection of economies.

Socially, the pandemic, vaccinations, increasing schisms in socio-economic peoples, immigration, increasing tension of opinion on the pace of the place of gender and sexual identity, health disparities, mental wellness, racism, remote work models, international collaboration without ease of travel, food shortages, and two years of unexpected online education, especially in the school systems, have and will have long-term impact.

Technology and its impact on the world of business has continued to increase exponentially. The Smartphone is a necessity in our daily life; social media, tablets, cloud computing, smart watches, AI, QR codes, and streaming are changing at a rate way beyond what was imagined when Moore’s law was first introduced in 1975.

Environmentally, we are observing unprecedented climate change, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, locust plagues, and famines. There are now daily reports of record high temperatures, and the impact on ecosystems and human society.

Legally, there has never been a time in history where there is so much at risk with uncertain regulation, compliance, nationalism, supply chain challenges, and financial instability.

It is certainly a VUCA world. However, leaders are appointed to achieve a purpose and are expected to meet the challenges. There are numerous narratives on flourishing leaders who are flourishing and positively responding to this disruptive state, positioning their organizations to be successful, sustainable, and even to thrive. They have several traits and attributes, but these four are intrinsically evident. These leaders are Visionary, Understood, Courageous, and Agile.

The VUCA leader’s response:

• To be a VISIONARY leader
It seems almost redundant to state that a leader must be visionary. However, by definition this type of leader is that person who has a clear idea of how the future should look, and in a VUCA world, that is not a simple or envious challenge.

Anchored in their organizational identity (mission and values), visionary leaders are identifying a future that fulfills purpose that is grounded in flourishing for all stakeholders – both external and internal. They are ambassadors of significance and emphasize why every member of the organization is a vital contributor to the best future imaginable.

The vision is shared by the community and is no longer just the purview of senior leadership and this shared vision is communicated clearly, consistently, and with passion and energy. There is no doubt at any level of the organization that there is a path to a future, and they are integral in the vision’s success.

• To be a leader that is UNDERSTOOD
In a chaotic world the leader must be clearly understood as to what is significant, purposeful, achievable, and successful. The key themes of the leader who is understood by their organization is character, clarity, communication, and consistency. Authenticity and transparency have never been more needed by today’s increasingly fragile workforce.

The leader’s followers are desperately seeking that person who is genuine and empathetic, while still being the person they respect as their “commander” of the enterprise. Character (being authentic, honest, integrous) must be evident in a VUCA world. Clarity and consistency by the leaders in determining priorities toward this new future, with shared understanding by the entire enterprise is essential in an uncertain world – there is a critical desire for stability in the work environment and its genesis must be the organization’s most senior leaders.

Communicating these priorities, why they are important, how they are to be achieved, and what resources are to be allocated, provides understanding by all stakeholders of what is expected of them and how they are to be held accountable. Being clearly understood as a leader in disruptive times helps alleviate anxiety and should result in mitigating against resistance, hopefully converting this into productive energy and positive outcomes.

• To be a COURAGEOUS leader
“The one characteristic that I am very comfortable saying that all remarkable leaders in big business, small business, not-for-profit, military, government, and the arts, have to have is courage” (Sinek, 2017).

Leadership transition is at one of the highest levels in recent history. In a December 2020 HBR article titled, “Why capable people are reluctant to lead”, three specific types of risk emerged: interpersonal risk, image risk, and the risk of being blamed for failure. Being a leader is risky and that is why leaders need to be courageous. This was true before the pandemic and will continue to be true into the future.

To be innovative, pioneer new opportunities, change when the world is changing, requires courage. It takes courage to follow their “true north” when there appear to be easier pathways. Balancing heart, mind, and the leadership “burden” of being ultimately responsible for people’s well-being, and future, is not a task for the faint-hearted.

Maya Angelo, the great American poet, said “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

• To be an AGILE leader
Flexibility, adaptability, and strategic thinking are all leadership traits we think of when reflecting on a leader’s agility. Agile leaders are willing to change, are able to change, and change at a pace unprecedented in their enterprise’s history.

Agility is the leader’s primary tool in leading the organization from survival, through sustainability, to a future where the organization will thrive. Ideas are assessed and executed for results quicker than ever before. New workforce models that are virtual, technology centered, with terms like “tribes” and “scrums” are now common organizational development vocabulary for agile organizations.

Agile leaders promote a strategic-thinking mindset where there are intentional and rational thought processes that focus on the analysis and interpretation of critical external factors and variables that might influence the future success of the organization. This is the emerging culture fundamental to organizations who are to be successful in a VUCA world.

Nurturing a culture for making decisions and measured risk requires leaders to be mentally agile (making sense of changing external patterns), intellectually curious (always learning), creative, intuitive, an information junkie, an analyst, a systematic thinker, and an excellent and expedited decision maker (great acumen). Agile organizations can only exist with agile leaders – being agile in a VUCA world is non-negotiable.

As leaders we rely on our past experiences, and they will continue to be the center of who we are and how we lead. The challenge in leading toward an uncertain future is that the future will have little resemblance to the past. Leading through the dawn of this new era of leadership post-pandemic will not only be different, it will demand a new emphasis on learning again what it means to be a leader respected by followers.

Every aspect/learning of the professional world in which we apprenticed as emerging leaders, will now become more intense, transparent, automated, unbundled, intelligent, and dynamic. This new era will extend leaders as never before, starting with a willingness to be more visionary, better understood, courageous, and agile.

You can check out the other posts in Dr. Reynold’s “Resilient Leaders in a VUCA World” series HERE.

Want more nonprofit inspiration from BDI’s CEO? Check out MT’s recent article, “Curate content that shares action, inspiration & love” >>

  • Michael Tomlinson, BDI CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, better known as “MT,” is the CEO and President of BDI. With more than 25 years of executive leadership in business development and media, MT’s expertise involves leading organizations like Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk and Dunham+Company in the ideation and execution of successful integrated marketing, broadcast and digital media, and fundraising strategies that fuel growth.

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