VUCA Leaders Required for a VUCA World



James Bywater

Director of Product and Innovation

Korn Ferry Advisory

In 1998 the U.S. War College created the term VUCA, an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, in describing the challenging world that 21st century military officers would confront. The term quickly caught on as a way to characterize the technological and marketplace forces that are transforming the business world.  


Change now permeates the C-Suite. A new survey of nearly 13,000 senior leaders from Korn Ferry Advisory indeed shows 61% characterize their environments as “very changing” and only 19% describe their environments as “stable”. How can executives lead effectively in such a disrupted future of work?  

In the VUCA environment, the marketplace demands nearly continuous innovation and fast decision making – oftentimes in the face of incomplete information and a lack of clarity about the future. The classic managerial disciplines of strategic planning and financial forecasting – while still valuable – are insufficient to lead an organization through environments of constant change and turmoil.

The good news, according to James Bywater, Director of Products and Innovation at Korn Ferry Advisory, is that many leaders say they are personally stimulated by change and highly engaged when driving strategies in complex and volatile environments. “Our study indicates that having a higher sense of control in a situation and a focus upon the commercial end goal contributes significantly to a state of well-being. Leaders who are actively leading change often tend to feel empowered, engaged, and able to thrive despite the turmoil.”

Not every leader feels this way however. In scenarios with a very significant amount of profound change, strategies that may have worked well for these leaders in the past can become less effective. An overly structured approach to strategic planning for example can leave leaders feeling powerless and disengaged when these plans need to be rewritten constantly. Similarly, a higher tolerance of risk is a helpful attribute in leaders seeking to thrive in a VUCA setting. 


However, Bywater warns that the rest of the firm may flounder if leaders don’t effectively engage the rest of their workforce. Those outside the executive suite may fear and spurn the ambiguity instead of embracing it. 

"This is the real challenge of becoming an effective leader in the VUCA environment,” he says. “Leaders themselves are usually willing and able to respond to the demands of the twenty-first century business world. But in order to make their entire business strong and agile enough to cope, they need to bring the whole workforce along with them.

A lack of ownership and clarity among the larger workforce can fail to generate the necessary employee engagement to drive the desired change, explains Bywater. “For these transformations to work, top leaders must embody the desired change in everything they say and do. They must encourage collaboration to discover the best ideas; reward intelligent risk-taking; and show good decision-making in the face of ambiguity.”

Today there are further complexities. Harvard professor and previous CEO of Medtronic, Bill George, recently wrote that we are now in VUCA 2.0. In addition to constant change in technology and markets, George noted, business leaders must now confront disarray on issues such as global trade, health care, and financial regulation – all of which impacts their organizations and customers. At a minimum, leaders need to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers and, instead, they should create more inclusive processes to share information and make decisions.

"Empowerment is the key,” agrees Bywater. “Just as top leaders report that they feel engaged and energized in implementing change, they must endeavor to empower others throughout the organization to become of agents of change rather than simply executing the tasks handed to them by their managers. In so doing, leaders will generate higher levels of engagement and a shared purpose so, no matter what headwinds the organization faces, it’s best-placed to navigate the VUCA world.

- James Bywater, Director of Product and Innovation at Korn Ferry Advisory 

Join the conversation on LinkedIn

We’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences. Is your organization becoming more agile? How are you adapting to the challenges of the digital economy? 
Join the conversation on LinkedIn

Sign up to receive the latest news on the future of work, as Korn Ferry experts explore what’s holding business back today, and how leveraging the power of both people and digital will make the difference in the future of work.

Sign Up

Stay up to date on the future of work


Understand your greatest value creator