Leader Agility for a VUCA World

Leader Agility for a VUCA World

Are today’s leaders being beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists?

VUCA is an acronym that came into common usage in the military in the late 1990s and is now used to describe the environment many organizations are facing today: –

• Volatility – The speed, frequency, and nature of change

• Uncertainty – The lack of predictability

Complexity – The interaction of multiple forces, variables, and systems

• Ambiguity – The lack of clarity surrounding a situation

Despite experiencing VUCA in their market places many organizations are desperately still trying to create order in the chaos by formulating long term strategic plans and training their leaders in the skills required to implement the plans. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with long term planning or skills training if the development of leaders ends here these organizations are in danger of beautifully equipping their leaders for a world that no longer exists. Today organizations need to also focus on ‘leader development’ alongside ‘leadership and business skills training’. Leader development focuses on how leaders perceive situations, understand issues, make decisions, and take action. Leaders can have very high levels of leadership skills but with the absence of leadership development, they are at high risk of very effectively leading people in the wrong direction. A key component of ‘leader development’ in a VUCA world is to enable leaders to gain higher levels of agility in the way they think, feel and act: –


Elliot Jaques, through his research into the differences like work at different levels in the organization, found that the higher a person progressed in the hierarchy the more uncertain and complex the work became. Through investigating the people who could deal with uncertain and complex work he found that they could process conceptual and abstract information in parallel and converge at a conclusion. They were able to deal with differing shades of gray. This differentiated them from those who did not progress through the hierarchy as they tended to process more concrete information in serial and saw things as black and white. This research is published in ‘Requisite Organization’ by E. Jaques (1988) and ‘Human Capability: A Study of Individual Potential and Its Application’ by E. Jaques and K Cason (1994). Jaques and his colleagues concluded that to successfully lead organizations during times of uncertainty and complexity leaders need high levels of cognitive capacity, values, knowledge/skills, and wisdom. We use the Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) to assess a leader’s cognitive capacity which is derived from Jaques ‘Stratified Systems Theory’ and ‘The Viable Systems Model’ by Stafford Beer.


Emotional Intelligence is the term most widely used to describe a leader’s level of agility in this area. The concept of emotional intelligence is rather nebulous, though it is generally viewed to contain attributes such as self-awareness, emotion management, and empathy. These attributes enable a leader to be mindful of their emotions and manage them according to the situation. Several researchers have found that the level of emotional intelligence is the differentiator between the high and average performers. Research carried out by Dulewicz and Higgs (2000) from Henley Management College found that Emotional Intelligence contributes to 36% of the factors that determine success. We use the Bar-On EQ-i to profile a leader’s level of emotional intelligence.


Through the use of 1st generation personality profiling tools such as the 16PF, CPI or OPQ a leader can become aware of their habitual behaviors. The leader can use this awareness positively in a way that enables greater choice in their actions and subsequently gain higher levels of agility. However, all too frequently in their quest leaders become slaves to their personality and subsequently become a rigid caricature of themselves. Their hold on their personality has become too tight. To develop greater behavioral agility leaders need to be able to transcend the constraints of their personality and contact a deeper place of authenticity associated with their core being. Self-awareness beyond personality can be gained by using, what we call 2nd Generation psychometrics such as the FIRO-B, Motivational Profile, and Value Orientations. These psychometrics bring awareness of the dynamics of underpinning personality such as values, beliefs, self-concept, defenses, etc.

Leaders who have agility do not need stability, certainty, and simplicity. They can ‘hold’ VUCA in the heads and the clarity to make the right judgments at the right time. The VUCA world looks set to stay – along with the organizations that can embrace it.

To find out how leaders can be developed to gain higher levels of agility in thinking, feeling and acting please read our previous articles ‘How Leaders Can Avoid the Expertise Trap’, ‘A Leader’s Journey’, ‘Mapping the Terrain for Leader Development’, and ‘Developing Leaders in the Workplace’.

Source by Terry Sexton

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