Many leaders struggle to adjust and align in knotty situations, but it is possible to lead with clarity in a VUCA world.


We are in a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Technologically, economically, politically, environmentally and socially, the sands are shifting beneath our feet. Change is now no longer confined to organisations: it is system wide, interconnected and discontinuous. Wherever we look, leaders are challenged as they struggle to adjust and align to situations of increasing complexity. Navigating in a context such as this requires different skills, attributes and abilities. Through my work as an academic and advisor, I have been fortunate to closely observe and assist organisations facing and managing change in the most extreme environments. From that work, a number of key lessons surface: areas of reflection that will help you and your organisation develop your vision and align to an environment in flux.

Mental space

The first involves thinking about how you frame your leadership. Leaders are ‘pathfinders’ within organisations. At their best, they articulate a shared vision, understand strategy as a dynamic process, and ‘sense make’ from confusing environments and mixed messages from stakeholders. Having external sounding boards can help leaders untangle conflicting information and allow them perspective amidst frantic activity. An analogy that may be helpful comes from studies of emergency medicine. When a patient is in difficulty, they often have a number of skilled physicians working on them at the same time. But the consultant – the leader – is standing back, often behind and watching. They can’t just look at blood pressure, or respiration, or bleeding – they need to see it all and how it connects. When I work with leaders dealing with extreme volatility, they identify the cultivation of this mental ‘space’ as a way to manage complexity and confusion.


The second is the need to reflect on your organisation and what you think it is currently established to do. This may seem like a strange question but think of it in this context – Harvard academics Heifetz and Linsky have observed that “there is no such thing as a dysfunctional organisation, because every organisation is perfectly aligned to get the results it currently gets”. So, asking what your organisation is actually aligned to do is useful, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable for leaders to identify hidden areas of dysfunction. 

Enacted leadership

The third is your own conceptualisation of what leadership actually is. We have traditionally tended to see leaders as having some significant attributes that were usually positional (at the top), gender-based (male) and heroic (superhuman). Thankfully, we now recognise that leadership appears at all organisational levels and often looks very different from the stereotype. Recognising enacted leadership when we see it is crucial. Rewarding and protecting those leadership behaviours you want within your organisation is just as vital. Retired US General, Stanley McCrystal, reflects on this in his recent book on iconic leadership. He comments that leaders are just humans surrounded by those who enable and find meaning in their activities. Leadership is all about context and is an organisational process, as well as an individual one.

Timing and trust

Sometimes timing is everything. One of the things that my research has illustrated is that common guidance on managing change doesn’t work in all contexts. Indeed, when an organisation is under stress, introducing what is often called ‘a sense of urgency’ can be actively unhelpful. Instead, a paced and inductive approach is more useful. I saw this most critically in the newly established Police Service of Northern Ireland, which embarked on radical, rapid change in a highly volatile environment. Ensuring that the organisation had a period to prepare was important, even though it drew criticism at the time. Thinking about how you time and pace big decisions and their implementation allows you to be in a better position for psychological and structural transition to be successful.

Leaders often talk about trust and empowerment, but it takes real courage to turn talk into active practice. One leader I spoke to was keen to redistribute authority quite radically down his organisation but admitted that when staff started acting on this and taking decisions, he was momentarily horrified. He realised that he had a choice to make: to roll back into his comfort zone or move ahead and, in doing so, really trust (and back up) staff who were nervous themselves. He chose the latter and reaped the rewards.

The ratcheting of risk

Resilience is a real buzz word at the moment. We tend to think about it in terms of our own personal ability to recover from setbacks. However, resilience is also an organisational attribute and all leaders need to consider how equipped their organisation and people are to cope with a shock to the system. In my work with leadership teams, I often ask them one question: what three things would need to happen in close succession for your organisation to be in real trouble? When potential threat is conceptualised in this way, it’s much easier (and also scarier) for leaders to see environmental factors that could force them off track or worse, lead to catastrophe. Having identified not just single factors, but the ratcheting of risk, they can then prepare more appropriately.

The duty of hope

One of the most significant personal challenges for any leader is managing through periods of stress and instability. Continuing to demonstrate positive behaviours in negative environments is difficult to sustain but vital to those who are looking for direction. During the Northern Ireland peace process, senior officials in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs coined a phrase for periods of difficulty – they saw it as having a ‘duty of hope’. Essentially, this spoke to two aspects of the challenge that faced them: their professional duty and their personal emotional response. As such, it was a powerful and accessible idea to hold on to in the darkest of times.

Past and present

Shakespeare famously wrote that “the past is prologue” and this is never truer than in an organisation under pressure. Understanding the history and legacy of your organisation will tell you a great deal about why it behaves the way it does. It is possible to identify where the past impacts upon the present just by paying close attention to organisational myths. Think about the stories that your organisation members tell, especially to new people. Who are the heroes in these stories and who are the villains? This will tell you a lot about your culture and assist in managing diverse internal interests and perspectives. 


Leading in complexity is tough; having time to reflect even when (or especially when) volatility is at its most disruptive is critical. Barack Obama and John McCain were both running for the presidency of the United States of America when the financial crisis hit. McCain suspended his campaign and suggested that the first presidential debate be postponed. Obama refused, commenting that “a president needs to be able to focus on more than one thing, at one time”. It was an inflection point in the campaign and McCain never regained momentum. Obama had hit upon a fundamental truth of managing in extreme turbulence: the need to at least attempt the management of environmental complexity.

These lessons – the cultivation of mental space, an awareness of aspects of dysfunction, leadership as a whole organisation process, the timing and sequencing of change implementation, empowerment as an enacted reality, what the past tells you about the present, and personal and organisational resilience – should act as a guide for implementing your vision in challenging times.
We are in a VUCA world.

Dr Joanne Murphy is a Senior Lecturer and Interim Director at the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute, Queen’s University Management School.

Period03 Feb 2019

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