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Leading in times of crisis

By Nigel H. Tomlinson

December 1 2020 - 2020 will forever be remembered as a year of crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the world. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives and millions more had their lives effectively put on hold. This was all occurring with the inevitable consequence of a global recession that was felt across all business sectors at a time when we were still trying to overcome the fallout from the 2008 global banking crisis.

At the time of writing, scientists have made significant breakthroughs, with the development of a number of vaccines and the resulting media frenzy has filled people with hope that their lives may soon return to normal. But what now constitutes 'normal'? The fact is that a 'new normal' has been with us certainly for the last twenty years if not longer. In other words, 'Welcome to the VUCA Century', a time of almost perpetual crisis caused by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

We live and operate in a period filled with an uncertain scope of changes, incomprehensible processes and unpredictable incidences. The world has always been a complex place but, since the turn of the century, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in uncertainty with growing political, geo-political, economic, environmental, legal, technological, market, corporate and even personal risk. Organisations feel as though they have been caught up in the 'VUCA Vortex' and have to navigate permanent white-water driven by volume, variety and velocity. This is because their challenges are much less predictable and their knowledge is similarly less reliable.

In the modern world, speed matters and therefore organisations need to have the ability to easily and quickly respond to constant change. They need to understand themselves and others so that their structures and teams can meet the needs of a new business and operating environment. They can no longer think that all of their problems are 'out there', caused by other people and events. Organisations need to invest time and energy where it will pay off exponentially by concentrating on small internal shifts through a commitment to continuous improvement. This can be achieved through innovation and creativity that will unleash huge, high leveraged changes in the world beyond their gates. The 'VUCA Century' demands that these actions start with individuals who are willing to take the first step. Organisations also need to understand their own behaviour and that of their people, in turn developing and equipping them with the skills to succeed.

This cannot be achieved through traditional management thinking, only by effective leadership. The days of just asking what, why, where, when, how, which and who are long gone; we now have to ask, what if and why not? Quite simply, we need to fight VUCA with a VUCA of our own by using vision, understanding, clarity and agility. According to the Global Leadership Forecast, organisations whose leaders have a very high VUCA capability are 3.5 times more likely than organisations with low VUCA capability to have a strong leadership team.

VUCA capability is also linked to financial results. The top 20% of organisations who perform well financially are 3 times more likely to have VUCA capable leaders as compared with the bottom 20%.

So, organisations will need leaders at every level with skills to introduce and guide change, build consensus and commitment, and inspire others towards a future vision. This vision should lead across generations by forging a shared purpose, despite diverse viewpoints and motivations, making more leaders along the way. These leaders must be capable of anticipating and reacting to the nature and speed of change, maintaining effectiveness despite constant surprises and a lack of predictability. They must be equipped to navigate through complexity, chaos and confusion and act decisively without always having clear direction and certainty.

In conclusion, leadership may not be an organisation's vaccine for 'The VUCA Century'. It will, however, mean the organisation is much better prepared for 'Always-On Transformation', substantially increasing its chances of success and sustainability.

About the author

Nigel H. Tomlinson is Associate Lecturer at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) Executive Education.

He has a career that spans more than 40 years in international trade and corporate international investment. Currently, he holds the position of non-executive director/advisor and innovation specialist. Nigel has led many companies into success including the Sheffield Chamber which has won various awards on the national, European and world stage.


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