A Volatile World Requires Vulnerable Leadership

The rate of change in the global economy has hit a new level of importance and speed. One can argue that things have always changed quickly but, research shows today’s new level of change and disruption is the norm.  This is brought about by several factors including, widespread access to information, technology disruption and, the globalization of the economy. Regardless of the myriad reasons, let’s explore the need for leadership in this new reality, especially in the context of our current pandemic.

VUCA: A Business Complexity Model

The backdrop for our thinking on change is the VUCA model, as researched and described originally by the US Army in the late 1990’s. Today this model is applied to management and leadership strategies in business as a way of sensemaking what the modern world brings to us. The acronym itself was not created until the late 1990s, and it was not until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that notion and acronym really took hold. VUCA is defined as Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. The model was subsequently adopted by strategic business leaders to describe the turbulent, rapidly changing and, sometimes chaotic, business environment that has become the ‘new normal’.

In general, the business world has begun to adapt this model for how to think about making business decisions in the modern world. In other words, how to live with these things and still make solid, strategic decisions – to lead.  The following illustration shares more details on VUCA. Source

This model presents the idea that leadership and decision-making in the modern business world is not straightforward and not terribly predictable. However, the ideas around VUCA theory suggest this new reality is here to stay and that the best leaders will understand it, reckon with it and do their best to make the best decisions possible – perhaps beating their competitors at being right more often than not.  Or, at least, choosing well for their own situations and circumstances.

VUCA: A Leadership Behavior Framework

VUCA can also be used as an acronym to explain the key leadership behaviors we need to show up with when confronted with VUCA business complexity situations. In these situations, we need Vulnerability, Understanding, Casting a Vision, and Accountability.


Let’s start with vulnerability. There’s a reason this has risen to importance in leadership research and popular management books like what Brene Brown is writing. If you look up definitions of “vulnerability,” you’ll see words like “exposed” or “liability.” It’s true, being exposed as a leader can definitely be a liability, but we believe the risk/reward ratio is solid here. Leaders who show up as their authentic self and share intimate thoughts, concerns and struggles are quite desirable in most work environments. Even those in your organization you think would not enjoy or tolerate such a leadership method often do. Vulnerability helps us see leaders as human and as a result helps us be seen.

This doesn’t mean you cross boundaries sharing personal or company data that could be harmful, but it does mean you push traditional boundaries that might be preventing you from being the same person you are at home when you are at work. Who wants to try to maintain two personalities, two value systems, two identities? It’s not productive and just flat out exhausting. This pandemic has created an opportunity to blend our worlds in new ways. Leverage that and good will come of it.


In chaos and not, it is necessary to lean into empathic ways of leading. For some, this comes easy. We’re altruistic and looking for ways to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” For others, it may feel like we need to be weak and displace our own feelings and desires to be more attuned to what others may be feeling. Somewhere in the middle is likely most advantageous.

You need to collect different points of view and be open to changing your mind – the highest level of active listening. Often, you need an established point of view to serve as your guiding principle on many topics but, again, willing to change your mind. Truly understanding where your employees are coming from and how decisions impact them will guide you to the right answers on tough issues. And the same can be said for listening and acting with empathy for your customers.

Casting a Vision

It’s likely you had a strategic vision driving focus in your organization before COVID-19 created a new direction. Maybe your new direction is still unveiling itself. If so, make finding it a top priority. There are many evidence-based ROI stats that cause this to rise to the top for us. Communicating a focus and casting a strategic vision with tactics that match is one of the best things you can do to create optimal performance for your teams.

Keep your three- or five-year strategic plan on your bookshelf. Hopefully you can dust it off and return to those plans in a few months. For now, you have permission to think shorter term and stabilize. Annual performance goals need put on pause. If your performance review cycle is approaching, pause it. This isn’t the time or place for it. Instead, create a nine-week or nine-month plan, whatever fits for your business. Narrow the focus to what is absolutely necessary to survive these turbulent times and then get laser focused on it as far and deep as you can. If projects don’t fit this focus, abandon them and return when the time is right. And, if you communicate clearly about the “why,” everyone will support it and create momentum to achieve the goal.


Holding people accountable is one of the best things you can do for your company – pandemic conditions or not. Yes, we’ve just talked about empathy and understanding but those don’t equate to sympathy and lax oversight. You’ve long heard people will rise to the expectations you set for them. Right? So why do we often find ourselves hesitant to set expectations and hold people accountable? One guess is because it’s hard to do. And it sure isn’t getting easier as goals and related expectations have likely shifted due to this pandemic.

Here’s a chance to inject a new norm or two in your business. We know many business leaders who are attracted to EOS and other operating system concepts because they help drive accountability. We’re big fans of a monthly business review (often called “MBRs”) and quarterly deeper dives (“QBRs”) with mid-year strategic refreshers and annual strategic planning workshops. These processes help drive a level of visibility and, therefore, increased accountability deep and wide in an organization.

Closing Thoughts

As you deal with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous conditions, we encourage you to be vulnerable, understanding and casting a vision with accountability. A VUCA world requires VUCA leadership. We know this looks much simpler than it is, but we also know you are capable of mastering these leadership behaviors if they become a focus.

FirstPerson and the Performance Lab are in conversations daily with leaders just like you who are interested in stepping up their game. If you’d like a trusted advisor and/or thinking partner for any of what we’ve outlined, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Bryan Brenner
317.408.9189 cell

Rebecca Ellis, PhD

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