VUCA – A Leadership Dilemma

Sections of this topic

    Last spring I walked into a client’s office to deliver a leadership development program design and was greeted with, “We just got the McKinsey/BCG/Bain (take your pick) consulting report and we are completely reorganizing the business unit.”[i] Sound familiar? Look anywhere – business, the marketplace, organizations, or personal lives – the amount of turbulence today is stunning. The destabilizing events that my clients, and my business, experience daily create an environment that is hard to navigate with any predictability. Yet predictability is a condition that most of us crave.

    Although unforeseen, Dave (my client) and I were able to navigate the turbulence created by this turn of events, including our visceral reactions to it, and reach a place of opportunity for both our businesses. We achieved this using a framework and practices that helped us recognize and navigate the turbulence that the US Army War College calls VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.[ii] Over the next few weeks, I will develop this example and others to explore how to lead in a world that increasingly exists in the VUCA state.

    The VUCA framework was developed at the US Army War College in response to changes in the security environment over the last twenty years. The purpose of the Army post-graduate institution is the education of its best and brightest, focusing on leadership and strategy, and teaching the skills required to act effectively in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous world. Its usefulness led to a new nickname for the College, VUCA-U.

    A key leadership insight for working in VUCA situations is recognizing the dilemmas embedded within them. Unlike problems to be solved, dilemmas are those unsolvable, unanticipated, messy – yet potentially positive – issues and challenges that every leader faces. Dilemmas must be continuously managed, and they show up whenever VUCA does. Managing dilemmas requires leaders to think and act in new ways in order to make sense of the both/and nature inherent in any dilemma. In today’s VUCA world, recognizing dilemmas can save leaders from the “analysis paralysis” of problem solving, provided they have the capacity to stand in the adaptive tension dilemmas create.

    Back in the conference room, Dave and I spent the first two hours of our meeting riding the rapids of VUCA and the dilemmas of disruptive change. As we talked, I took mental notes on the VUCA elements of our situation.

    • Volatility – the new structure was a stark contrast to the current one and required different accountability, work groups, reporting structures, and networks of relationships – it begged the question: How can this be implemented without creating even more VUCA throughout the organization?
    • Uncertainty – who might leave and who would stay, what roles and titles would be created and who would fill them, what additional change would this create and who would design and lead that effort?
    • Complexity – the company was just concluding an acquisition, the markets were expecting solid growth performance over the next five years, people were anticipating some change but not this change, and key strategic initiatives just being kicked-off were themselves complex and interdependent
    • Ambiguous – it wasn’t clear whether this new structure would be permanent or if the company would need to return to the current structure within the next 3-5 years

    By the time we were joined by our three corporate sponsors, I was thinking about how we could shift out of VUCA and into VUCA Prime – Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility – a compass that helps leaders navigate the turbulence. That’s what we’ll look at next week.

    Lessons for Leaders

    • Successful tactical leaders can easily get trapped by their predictive mindset when they encounter a VUCA situation
    • Many leadership issues are not problems to be solved but rather dilemmas that must be continuously managed
    • VUCA is a neutral force in the world, it is the leader’s challenge to transform it and find the opportunity within

    Next Blog Post

    The antidote to VUCA – Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility – VUCA Prime.

    [i] For confidentiality purposes this and all examples have been modified.


    Dr. Carol Mase integrates business and biology to offer clients novel tools and methods for adaptive change, leadership, and organizational effectiveness.

    President | Cairn Consultants | 215.262.6666 |

    Skype: carol.mase