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Reimagining Leadership Styles in a "VUCA" World

Mark Cappone
March 24, 2022

It’s no secret that leaders face incredibly dynamic challenges in today’s environment, one that many refer to as “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous” or, “VUCA.” I first heard the term as a mid-grade Army officer and eventually went to the U.S. Army War College to focus more intently on building my critical thinking skills as a senior leader navigating in a very VUCA world. While those days are behind me now, I find myself looking back on them often as I help develop today’s leaders in my leadership coaching.

Daniel Goleman was one of the first to address the need for leaders to apply different styles based on the environment they were in and the people they were leading.[1] Over 20 years later, professors Jennifer Jordan, Michael Wade and Tomoko Yokoi are advocating that in today’s VUCA world, leaders need more than styles.[2] In their research they found that leaders need to navigate more nimbly between traditional and emerging leadership models, advocating the need for leaders to find a “sweet range” between:

  1. Holding and sharing power
  2. Generating short term plans and long-term visions
  3. Providing stability and displaying adaptability
  4. Emphasizing precision and emphasizing speed
  5. Deciding through intuition and deciding with data
  6. Looking internally to seize opportunities and scanning for external opportunities and threats
  7. Telling and listening

As Goleman urged leaders to work on more than one style, Jordan, et. al. urges leaders to work on navigating through all seven of these tensions rather than leaning on the one(s) in which they are most proficient or comfortable.

How do they do this? Leaders can find this "sweet range" by working on three things:

1. Striving for extreme emotional intelligence in understanding themselves and others

2. Practicing situational awareness, especially during times of disruption or conflict to better understand the environment as well as its implications for accomplishing the mission

3. Broadening the Range by practicing small behaviors that lead to longer term proficiency, as well as by seeking out others with different styles to observe and model

My client, “Rob” [not his real name] has decided to use a leadership coach to hone his abilities as a newly appointed senior executive in a rapidly growing tech company. In striving for extreme emotional intelligence, Rob has reflected on feedback from others and what he knows about himself to realize that while his long-term visionary abilities are a strength, his short-term planning abilities need some work. To practice situational awareness, Rob has spent time with someone outside his environment (me) deliberately analyzing the systems around him through my ‘outsider’ questions about current market conditions, where his industry is headed, his CEOs vision and how he might need to influence his CEO to alter that vision by adopting Rob’s recommendations. Finally, Rob has worked to broaden his range in navigating between leadership tensions by deliberately rehearsing conversations with me before meeting with his CFO and another senior executive who are displaying resistance. As we’ve role played how these conversations might go, Rob is increasing his awareness of how these two prefer to receive information and how to address the sources of their resistance instead of just selling the upsides of his plan.

The truth is that none of us really know what tomorrow might bring in today’s VUCA world. Leaders can embrace not knowing by constantly navigating the tensions of leadership based on what we know about ourselves, our environment and those around us.