The first time I saw VUCA I had no idea what it was. A quick Google search produced the answer. VUCA means: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. Simply stated, this is the world we live in!

VUCA Beginnings

VUCA began in the early 1990s from the military, and it was used to describe what the world would look like after the Soviet Union’s collapse. From here, VUCA has become trendy, being used more to frame strategic leadership ideas and approaches.

VUCA is a valid description of what happens in our business and economic environments. Technology drives volatility and complexity. Economic conditions create uncertainty. All of this is wrapped in ambiguity. At times, there seem to be so many trends happening at once. Trying to grasp it all while determining a reasonable path forward seems nearly impossible.

In what seems impossible, what is possible begins to bloom.

Don’t Be a VUCA Leader

The most certain thing about VUCA is that you do not want to be described in this way.

  • If you are a volatile leader, your changing and erratic behaviors will drive good people away.
  • If you are an uncertain leader, your changing directions will frustrate people and lead them to question your capabilities.
  • If you are a complex leader, no one will get to know you or your expectations. There is a clear danger of aloofness.
  • If you are an ambiguous leader, your lack of clarity in what is expected will stymie people from being engaged.

Being a VUCA leader is not the type of leader you want to be. Leaders need to be Reliable, Trustworthy, Direct, Understandable. No clever acronym, unless we arrange the letters to DURT – Direct, Understandable, Reliable, Trustworthy.

Now, DURT may seem inappropriate, but it actually works very well. In VUCA times, leaders need to get their hands dirty. In VUCA times, leaders need to plant seeds for growth. In VUCA times, leaders need to cultivate talent. In VUCA times, leaders need to harvest what is planted and always prepare for a better day ahead. VUCA and farming have a lot in common. There are many uncontrollable elements in producing a bountiful harvest, yet we control what we can and work through what we cannot.

Leading Through VUCA

The point in all this is to raise your leadership game in times of VUCA. Leaders cannot match VUCA with VUCA characteristics. Instead, leaders need to do more. Leaders need to be:  Direct, Understandable, Reliable, and Trustworthy.

How to Be a DURT Leader in VUCA Times

In VUCA times, what should leaders do? Simply stated, leaders need to embrace the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Running from these conditions serves no one well.

Organizations depend on leaders to help navigate these times. Organizations want to be engaged in helping solve the problems and determine new strategies forward. Organizations are people and teams, and we want our leaders to succeed, and we want to assist in whatever way we can.

In VUCA times, teams do not want to be ignored. Leaders need to be out front and upfront with the environment and the expectations.

To be a Direct, Understandable, Reliable, and Trustworthy leader, highlighted below are five activities to undertake and initiate.

1 – Know your guiding leadership philosophy.

I believe in having a sound leadership philosophy. In VUCA times, having one is even more critical. A leadership philosophy will keep you centered as a leader and will also serve as a guiding force forward. Knowing how you want to lead will keep you leading in the way you intend to when all around you is in chaos.

2 – Create effective listening posts.

Listening well will be the lifeblood of your innovation and understanding of what your next move should be. Listening posts should include various stakeholders:  team members throughout the organizations, customers from various market segments, investors, and suppliers and other partners. Taking the information in is only the first part. Understanding the meaning of the information will take extra effort and will pay dividends when this added step is taken.

3 – Engage a diverse team.

Just as the listening posts need to be diverse so do the talents engaged to analyze, solve, and act. In VUCA times, diverse times calls for diverse thinking. Getting out-of-the-box thinking and plans requires getting out-of-the-ordinary people engaged. A mix of perspectives and experiences will always enhance how to solve a problem and how to craft a new strategy. Said another way, don’t seek sameness. Don’t just engage people like you. Quite the opposite. Find people different than you. Engage people from diverse backgrounds and capabilities.

4 – Envision what the “other side” could look like.

VUCA times can create a swirl of activity. Activity creates motion but it doesn’t always create momentum. To gain momentum, a vision of what the other side of uncertainty looks like will help develop how to reach this new point of inflection. The reasons to not remain where you are may be strong but they also need to be clear. Communicating why we can no longer stay put and do what we always have done is essential. Communicating what a new future possible state can look like is vital. None of this will happen overnight, so keep communicating throughout the process.

5 – Develop an offense while maintaining your core.

Whatever is core to your business cannot, and should not, be jettisoned in the movement from where you are today to where you need to go in the future. There is a balance point. The “old” business provides the cash flow, customers, and brand to build the “new” business. At the same time, the old business cannot be the albatross to prevent the development of the new strategy.

A good offense always engages in a good defense. As a leader, a new offense needs to be communicated with clarity. While the new offense needs time to develop and unfold, maintaining the core business will ensure the new plans have time to take hold and produce success. Achieving the right give-and-take in the planning is the leadership challenge and necessity.

VUCA Requires DURT

VUCA is a reality, requiring leaders to engage the times fully. A Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous environment translates into the need for Direct, Understandable, Reliable, and Trustworthy leaders. Are you ready to get your hands dirty? Are you ready to plant the seeds for a better future when the outlook is cloudy? Are you ready to work collaboratively with your team and stakeholders?

What are your experiences in leading through volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity? What works? What doesn’t?


Two other recent articles on VUCA include Developing The Next Generation Of Leaders on Talent Culture and How Do You Thrive in Ambiguity? on Lead Change.