How to become a strong leader in the VUCA era

VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. A leader needs to foster healthy and trustful relationships prior to a crisis or disruptive environment to be most effective during one.
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The challenges of the past 18 months have brought home the fact that we are living in a VUCA world. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. As we have tried to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we have quickly had to unlearn, relearn and learn new skills to be relevant. As leaders, our teams have looked to us for guidance. In a world where the rate of change is occurring at the speed of lightning, we have had to adapt and show resolve and strength during difficult times.

As a former aviation professional, I was trained in disaster and crisis management. One of the key points of the training sessions was on communications and leadership during an incident or accident and how our actions or inactions could escalate or de-escalate the situation. This is relevant to all leaders. For instance, the abdication of Afghan President Ghani and the departure of the US Ambassador to Afghanistan quickly escalated the crisis in Kabul and created a vacuum in leadership. Similarly, on the other end of the spectrum, at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, decisive leadership on the part of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern helped her country quickly adapt to the new normal and saved many lives.

In a disruptive situation, whether brought on by environment, war or economy, the ability of leaders to demand trust and steer their teams and organisation through the turbulent period is a critical skill. For example, during COVID-19, leaders asked for teams to trustingly follow them into an uncertain future that was defined by new conditions of work, with new technologies, in new systems of operating, whilst learning new skills.

However, this kind of trust cannot be built in a day. A leader needs to foster healthy and trustful relationships prior to a crisis or disruptive environment to be most effective during one. With that foundation, here are ways to become a strong leader in a VUCA era.

Communicate with empathy

The first thing to do in a disruption is to have regular, clear and honest communications with your team, organisation, clients and community. Tell them the truth without embellishments, base messaging on facts, lay out the future plans and give them an opportunity to ask questions. In March 2020, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg held a COVID-19 press conference for children, a stakeholder who was most affected by the pandemic but least considered in the general communications. She patiently explained the pandemic to them, how it would impact their lives and truthfully answered their questions, allaying their fears. No adult journalists were allowed, and the children were allowed to ask her questions directly.

In general, holding regular town halls and meetings, providing a two-way communication channel between your team and yourself and transparently explaining the problem as well as the steps being taken will go a long way in building trust.

Be courageous

The Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that there is a growing trust gap worldwide and there is a decline in trust in leadership - government, CEOs, journalists and religious leaders. In many countries there is an acute credibility crisis amongst CEOs. In Japan it is 18 percent and in France 22 percent.

Therefore, it is important to be courageous in your leadership and communications. Difficult circumstances mean difficult decisions must be taken and the same must be communicated in a transparent manner. No matter how angry the staff or clientele are, they will appreciate the honesty and clarity. Zomato CEO Deepinder Goyal honestly said that there was not enough work for all when announcing a thirteen percent layoff. But he also said he and his leadership team would work to find the laid off team members jobs.

Drive change middle up and middle down

Use your teams to drive change. There is a huge middle layer of staff in every organisation who can be used as allies, collaborators, and partners to brainstorm solutions and be empowered as change agents. It marries both the vision of the leadership and the needs of the team downstream. It also builds the ability of the team to self-direct and self organise whilst creating an effective ecosystem where they can work and support each other. When people feel they are valued and have a role to play, it brings out the best in them.

Last year my own team decided the programming of our organisation and designed online workshops to engage the larger community on gender sensitivity, equality, and justice. They developed content that was engaging and interactive without compromising on the seriousness of the message. It got them through the pandemic whilst learning new skills, expanding our outreach and living their purpose.

Be generous

At the start of the pandemic, many organisations were concerned about the reliability of employees while they were working from home. They installed protocols for digital check-ins and software to confirm the presence of the employee. Rather than building trust, it created an environment of mistrust. In a disruptive situation like the pandemic, you might have to let go of pettiness and instead demonstrate trust yourself. Reassign responsibilities based on tasks and goals and be flexible about time. Everyone working from home has their own unique challenges - sharing space, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth, online children’s education, sick family members, minimal or lack of house help and more.

As a leader, being generous in your assignment of trust in the person to deliver will go a long way in reflecting the trust in your leadership. Some companies like Godrej Properties and Dasra gave their employees wellbeing breaks, others helped deliver groceries to the home, provided infrastructure for better connectivity and some even cut down on workdays. Putting your people at the centre of policies without always looking at the bottom line will definitely motivate them to put in the hard quality work and deliver consistently even in a VUCA world.

Finally, trust is a two-way street. What you give is what you receive. Hold a mirror to yourself and invest in creating and developing these trustful relationships. You will be rewarded by a workforce that will follow you into the uncertain future. Remember, people leave bosses not jobs.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan