Leading Through the Unknown (VUCA and Strategic Focus)


Good Leadership…

A client recently shared this story with me about responding to pandemic:

Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 were escalating rapidly the weekend of March 13-15.  Schools had been closed and there was talk from the home office that we would need to start considering alternative arrangements.  Over the weekend an extensive email was sent that said a lot while, in my opinion, really didn’t say anything.  Recognizing that my questions were probably the same as the other people in our branch office, I sent a group text to everyone letting them know that we were to report for work on Monday as usual unless there were extenuating circumstances (needing to take care of yourself / others, or compelled to be extra cautious); and to let both me and their supervisor (if not also me) know if they decided not to come in.

Once everyone arrived on Monday morning, I instructed all to continue with their day as normal, but to make sure that they tested all of their remote connection capabilities and wrapped up anything that required them to be physically in the office.  They needed to make preparations in anticipation of working remotely for an extended period of time.  As we wrapped up that discussion, one of them commented that he was really glad I was there.

We independently moved to remote operations on Tuesday morning which allowed us to work out our bugs prior to the rest of the company.  When the directive came from home office late Tuesday, we had gone through our troubleshooting and everyone was already up and running.

What makes a leader act like this?  If he hadn’t taken the initiative, where would his organization be?  If he had and this turned out to be nothing, what price might he pay?  But, by taking action, what advantage was he ultimately able to create?  And what do his coworkers think of him now?

… and Not-So-Good Leadership

Another client shared this story from his wife, who works in a large hospital system.

Her company held a town hall meeting earlier this morning during which they assured all participants that there were not going to be layoffs…  Shortly after the conclusion of the same meeting, a company-wide email was sent that included instruction on ways to apply for unemployment.

Why are leaders acting like this?

One answer may be found in the Stage of Development the leader occupies.  The first leader seems to be working out of a “Creative/Self-Authoring Mind,” where he’s focused on achieving purpose, decisive, having a strategic focus, caring for his people, and reassuring them.  He’s “purpose-driven.”

The leaders in the second organization seem to be “Reactive/Socialized Mind” leaders.  They’re driven by fear, trying to control the anxiety that seems to be running rampant.  Their lack of integrity and “courageous authenticity” actually fuels the anxiety.  Jim Collins talks of this in his classic, “Good to Great” and calls it “The Stockdale Paradox” – confront the brutal facts but never give up hope.

Some public-school leaders are Creative/Self-Authoring leaders who seem to be operating at another level.

  • One superintendent personally called 300 students to check in on how they were doing in these unprecedented times. In addition, she called senior citizens to check into how they were doing
  • Another superintendent, when faced with the challenges of pivoting to remote learning, immediately contacted Comcast to see about putting together “hotspots” for those students who did not have internet accessibility.
  • Yet another superintendent, when faced with a “herd” expectation to feed all students, instead connected with the local ministerium and coordinated efforts to have different groups take over different student segments, allowing the District to focus on feeding those with the most need.

In a coaching session with an assistant superintendent, she remarked, “We’ve made changes in a week that would have taken years to accomplish.”  What makes the difference?  Why are some organizations engaged and purposeful while others are filled with anxiety and waiting for someone to come up with “the answer?”


Strategic Focus

Anderson and Adams (“Mastering Leadership,” “Scaling Leadership,” “The Leadership Circle Profile”) have identified two dimensions of leadership that are most highly correlated to effective leadership – Achieving and Relating.  Within the “Achieving” dimension, one of the most important competencies is “Strategic Focus” – and that’s one of the most important competencies to be developing and drawing on in times like this.

According to research done by the Leadership Circle Group:

Strategic Focus measures the extent to which you think strategically. It measures how well you translate strategic thinking into rigorous and thoroughly developed business strategies to ensure that the organization will thrive in the near and long-term.

Having Strategic Focus may mean that you:

    • Think strategically
    • Do not get overly caught-up in short-term firefighting and are able to devote adequate attention to strategic initiatives
    • Have a good sense for what will work in the marketplace
    • Are rigorous in your analysis of data used for planning
    • Have a good process in place for maintaining an ongoing strategic perspective within the organization
    • Know well your organization’s strengths and weaknesses
    • Know how to play to your organization’s strengths
    • Set a course that ensures the organization’s ability to thrive
    • Have a good sense of timing for marketplace initiatives
    • Ask questions about the strategic implications of day-to-day decisions being made
    • Understand the big picture of how your organization’s mission fits in the marketplace



In the 1990s I had the opportunity to spend two years as a civilian volunteer at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks.  There, I met Dr. Herb Barber, who was one of the lead instructors.  It was Herb who introduced me to the concept of VUCA, what one of the generals called “The Strategic Leader’s Playground.”  VUCA refers to the combination of forces that arise when events don’t go the way “they’re supposed to.”  As Dr. Barber often reminded me, “there are no textbook answers to VUCA questions and problems.”

Bennett and Lemoine have the most effective definitions of each element of VUCA in an article, “What VUCA Really Means for You,” Harvard Business Review; January-February 2014.

Volatility is when the challenges are unexpected or unstable and may be of unknown duration, but it’s not necessarily hard to understand; knowledge about it is often available

Uncertainty is when, despite a lack of other information, the event’s basic cause and effect are known.  Change is possible but not a given.

Complexity indicates the situation has many interconnected parts and variables.  Some information is available or can be predicted, but the volume or nature of it can be overwhelming to process.

Ambiguity shows that causal relationships are completely unclear.  No precedents exist; you face “unknown unknowns.”

In these times, we’re confronted with VUCA at every turn.  By remembering that there are no “right” answers to VUCA-filled strategic questions – only experiments we can engage in to come up with viable solutions – and by keeping a strategic focus, engaging others in the organization to help develop these experiments, leaders will be able to forge their way into helping shape the “new normal” that awaits us.


© Geoff Davis, 4/10/20

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