VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) is a term with military origins, and nothing more aptly describes the socio-economic environment business leaders need to navigate in today’s tumultuous world. This has elevated the need for strong, capable, and inspiring leadership to an absolute imperative, is driving a shift in the most critical capabilities leaders need, and has challenged traditional leadership development methods.

The Leadership Imperative

Implications of the global health crisis, war, civil unrest, economic uncertainty, and rapid change the accelerated digital revolution is driving are just some of the major complexities affecting business operating environments and the associated leadership challenges.  At the same time, the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that people hold business leaders to higher standards than ever before, with 68% expecting them to step in when governments fail to fix societal problems. We are seeing this manifest through businesses taking the lead on matters of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) and Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) to name a few. So the need for strong leadership has never been greater, the complexities leaders have to navigate never more challenging, and the expectations for business leaders never higher. 


Leadership Capabilities for a VUCA world


The complexities and new realities leaders have to navigate have caused a shift in the most critical leadership capabilities needed to enable businesses to succeed and thrive. Ensuring focus on developing these capabilities is a leadership and business imperative. Today’s leaders need to be able to:

1. Lead effectively with agility through uncertainty

2. Act as a unifying and inspiring force

3. Balance being both digital and human-centric

Leading with Agility

The criticality of agility as a core leadership capability had already emerged pre-pandemic due to the continued advances in the digital revolution. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic acted as a  catalyst to this. It caused leaders to have to learn quickly, leading through a rapidly evolving situation that neither they or anyone else had any experience in.  They had to pivot company strategies and priorities on the fly, shift from leading teams in a physical workplace to a virtual one, and suddenly had a far greater responsibility for the physical and mental health of their team members than ever before. For many leaders, it helped shine a light on what they were truly capable of, perhaps beyond what they might have believed, and in itself became a leadership development and growth experience.  As digital advances continue to be made, and macroeconomic and geopolitical conditions remain uncertain, businesses need to continue to tap into the agile leadership that has emerged, and continue to further nurture,  grow and develop that capability.

A unifying and inspiring force

Leaders must continue to develop and tap into the power of diverse teams, and create an environment where diverse team members are recognized for their unique value, and be their authentic selves.  At the same time, with diverse teams coupled with hybrid workplaces, leaders need to have a unifying influence and help create a true sense of community, unity, belonging and connectedness. While navigating change with agility, they also need to be the anchor which helps people remain focused on purpose, deliverables and enables people to fulfill their potential.

Digital and human centric

Leaders need to be digitally oriented and tech savvy. Driving technology advances and keeping ahead of that curve is critical to organizational success. In parallel they need to stay focused on recognizing people are still at the heart of what an organization does, how they do it and why they do it. Being able to create those personalized moments that matter are key.  Also, with the toll the global health crisis took on people, leading with empathy is critical to creating psychologically safe environments that are grounded in understanding and that can help people to thrive. 

Leadership Development

While the Leadership Imperative and Capabilities outlined above apply to all organizations, they will also have unique needs, challenges and goals which should inform their approach to leadership development.  It is therefore necessary to clearly articulate the business case behind focusing on leadership development, get stakeholders aligned, and then curate the most applicable tactics.

The business case

This is an important part of determining the Return on Investment (ROI) and must start with a clear articulation of why an investment needs to be made in Leadership Development, and what the organization hopes to achieve through it. While this may vary, the capabilities outlined above are critical to future-proof today’s organization.  Leadership development plans must align with the company strategy including the Mission and business priorities.

Aligning stakeholders

Learning teams who show how they are helping achieve business results get buy-in from stakeholders, which is vital to ensure executive alignment. They must be on board, as their support will increase adoption rates amongst their teams. Equally important is the target audience; learning teams must ensure they involve them in the process and understand their needs.

Curate the Leadership Development Plan

Prior to the pandemic, a multi-day immersive “classroom style” was still the primary leadership development delivery model, according to research by  The pandemic got in the way of that, but it was already questionable and starting to lose luster.  Of particular note, the “forgetting curve” theory says humans start losing memory of learned knowledge over days or weeks unless the knowledge is consciously reviewed. Therefore any formal learning component needs to be in smaller absorbable segments, spaced and revisited, or the potential for ROI  significantly diminishes.

Having a range of development tactics is critical. The Center for Creative Leadership recommends that for effective learning delivery, training methods should be 70% on-the-job experience, 20% learning through others 10% formal learning. It's therefore important to invest in leaders who role model the desired behaviors and demonstrate the desired capabilities, and know who to create on the job experiences for their people to ensure they continue to be challenged and grow.  Ongoing feedback, coaching and mentoring is also important and should be designed in, not left to chance. This can also be supplemented by formal external coaching.  The key point is, leadership development, to be effective, needs to have clearly articulated goals, and multipronged development plans.