Leadership in Times of Tumult

In today’s VUCA world, global leaders need to balance two seemingly opposing forces: disciplined execution to manage present-day demands with the foresight to innovate for the future. Are you ready? | Illustration: Norman Gracia

In today’s VUCA world, global leaders need to balance two seemingly opposing forces: disciplined execution to manage present-day demands with the foresight to innovate for the future. Are you ready? | Illustration: Norman Gracia

By Fred Krawchuk

The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. These words were written by British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in the 1920s, yet they perfectly describe the challenge of global leaders in times of VUCA – short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

During my career in the U.S. Army Special Forces, I frequently focused on managing multi-stakeholder collaboration in VUCA environments to align divergent factions around a common mission. One assignment took me to Afghanistan, where we aimed to build consensus across security, development, diplomatic, civil and governance circles to help the country rebuild in the wake of 30 years of conflict.

Amid an incredibly complex, uncertain and turbulent environment, this endeavor seemed like a “mission impossible,” yet we were able to effectively transform isolated pockets of action into a nationwide collaborative network by leveraging collaboration principles that can benefit any type of organization.

In today’s VUCA world, global leaders need to balance two seemingly opposing forces: disciplined execution to manage present-day demands with the foresight to innovate for the future. Based on my collaborative ventures in the military, as well as in corporate and non-profit spheres, I would highlight five core pillars of this “sense and respond” leadership model:

  1. Recognize the paradox. Business scenarios often entail two different organizational abilities: the technical know-how of large corporations and the agility and innovative acumen of start-ups. To ensure long-term growth, companies need to be aware of both, recruit the right talent for each and avoid the trap of treating every challenge as business as usual.
  2. Adopt an integrative approach. The next step is implementing the right organizational structure to leverage these divergent abilities. In this way, companies can scale and exploit their “core” – current revenue-generating products and services – while actively exploring ideas from the “edge” to tap future avenues for growth.
  3. Manage the tension. The concurrence of core and edge objectives can trigger opposing forces that senior managers have to align in order to avoid “us versus them” friction. In this regard, firms should encourage top-down resourcing and offer channels to facilitate communication between core and edge constituents.
  4. Embrace an integrative leadership style. Integrative leadership advocates an “and/both” mindset that can simultaneously coalesce diametrically opposed concepts: short-term and long-term, top-down and bottom-up, freedom and control, integration and differentiation. In terms of talent management, healthy organizations are capable of integrating its differentiated parts and embracing diversity, appreciating the abundance of perspectives, abilities and resources it brings.
  5. Foster a culture of situational awareness. In a VUCA context, business leaders require a heightened sense of situational awareness to stay attuned to internal and external forces that could impact their company. To this end, they need to have systems in place to detect market threats and emerging patterns, as well as mechanisms to listen to diverse stakeholders and keep their pulse on the environment.

Fred Krawchuk is a decorated U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and a senior lecturer in IESE’s Department of Production, Technology and Operations Management. Prof. Krawchuck is the academic director of How to Build Adaptive Organizations in an Age of Uncertainty,” a focused program aimed at business leaders who seek to bolster their organization’s long-term growth and capacity to innovate. IESE’s Barcelona campus will host the next edition.

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