Leadership in a VUCA world

Coined by the US military to describe the post-Cold War context, the VUCA acronym has been researched and adopted by business since the 1980’s to help leaders and organisations understand and manage volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Aside from a handful of notable global and organisational crises, it is easy to argue that the Covid-19 pandemic has produced the most novel VUCA situation that leaders have had to navigate themselves, their teams, and organisations through in our lifetime. It landed so quickly and unexpectedly that it was impossible for leaders to prepare for, and there have been few existing playbooks upon which leaders have been able to base decisions. 

In turn, this has highlighted the leadership traits that have differentiated ineffective and effective leaders in 2020, and the media has been filled with examples of each, both in government and the business world. With 2021 likely to be characterised by similar and prolonged challenges, the risks of getting leadership decisions wrong has never been more critical for organisations.

We spoke to Richard Hossiep, co-author of the Business-focused Inventory of Personality – 6 Factors (BIP-6F) Second Edition, to understand more about the hallmarks of successful VUCA leadership and the importance of assessing these personality traits as part of selection and promotion decisions.

What have you observed as being the most critical personality characteristics for leaders now and in the near future?

‘That’s a tough question because there are a lot of characteristics to consider, and I think we have to look at this as a combination of characteristics. A profile, or a combination of certain traits, is more likely to ensure leadership success. If we’re focusing on a couple of the most prominent traits here, then adaptability is one of the most important, and being resilient to the pressures of leadership. That means high drive, high stability. You’ve also got to be cooperative and motivated whilst able to motivate others.’

How have these characteristics changed over time in terms of predicting leadership effectiveness?

‘My interpretation is that we’re moving towards a more nuanced view, moving towards individual characteristics that are more important for success, that can foster cooperation, for example. Also, because of Covid-19, we’re looking at the interaction between personality and situations. There’s a long-standing debate in psychology about whether it’s persona or situation, but usually the answer is both and in the interaction. I would say even more so now because it’s not about one leadership style, it’s about what works best in what situation, i.e. front-line leadership within the food retail sector during the pandemic would be different to managing a remote team of employees.’

To what extent has the pandemic galvanised a different kind of leadership?

‘If we’re talking about remote working, the most important thing here is trust, because leaders can’t control as much as they would have done if they were in the office. It requires a different leadership approach; you can’t just stop by your employee’s desk to check in. Some employees will prefer this trust-based approach; whereas others may require more hands-on support, which makes it harder to create a working environment in which everyone wants to contribute and is willing to get the job done. Based on this, what we have observed is that leadership relies heavily on indirect influences, such as staying motivated and showing commitment to the organisation whilst giving employees freedom, and – crucially – trusting them.’

What opportunities has the pandemic brought to leaders and organisations?

‘I think that everyone knows now that Covid-19 has been the driving force behind the rapid digitalisation in many workplaces. It’s been talked about for many years now but this time a lot of businesses couldn’t run without it, even the very basics. If you don’t have a laptop or a Zoom/Teams account, you will struggle to communicate effectively; if you don’t have the IT infrastructure for team operations, you just can’t work. That’s it, simply put. Working from home also means that personal circumstances may be more visible than before. Perhaps an employee has small children at home, and that employee would be able to perform better if they changed their working hours around childcare. Leaders need to be open to change, to be flexible, and to adapt in order to benefit their team but also to improve productivity.’

One of the factors of the BIP-6F Second Edition is ambition. To what extent might the construct of ambition have changed for leaders and the workplace as a result of the pandemic?

‘On a construct-level, ambition is closely related to achievement motivation. It’s a classical psychological construct that forms motivation and then guides behaviour. People have different levels of ambition and it can fluctuate depending on the situation. One of the main drivers of ambition is the want to achieve something, whatever that might be, and it’s an interesting subject because recently a number of career-related studies have shown a trend in which less and less people want to be in a leadership position. They don’t want it. It would be really interesting to tap in to why that is the case.’

What do you see as being the biggest derailers faced by leadership in a VUCA context?

‘Dealing with uncertainty. In an ambiguous or volatile environment you would need to be able to adapt to the unexpected, and in a pandemic the one-size-fits-all approach clearly doesn’t work. Leaders must be able to work with a tangible strategy whilst having a clear, intangible goal. That means that there is an increased risk when considering low mental stability.’

What traits enable a leader to balance those requirements?

‘I think openness is key. It’s something that we are focusing on more often in leadership research as it’s previously been a neglected trait. If you take a look at the Big 5 and the predictive validity of its dimensions, you’ll see that openness is not traditionally a clear predictor of leadership success, but the items are not directly related to the work environment. Creativity, another important factor, is closely related to openness in some ways. Someone who is creative in a work context is open to working with new concepts and ideas, but many workplace personality assessments don’t tap into creativity as a contributing factor. We should be looking at openness and creativity more because these traits enable a leader to be more willing to listen to others’ ideas. If you don’t, because you already think you know everything, then you might be guiding your team in the wrong direction and won’t be able to deal with changing environments.’

Following on from your last point, the leader can’t know everything - and they shouldn’t feel the need to - but how do you think this impacts trust in leadership in times of crisis, and what are the consequences of that?

‘You have seen the severe impact that Covid-19 has had across Europe, and you may have seen that people were increasing their trust in leaders at first (I’m speaking of Germany, specifically), because in a crisis you focus on reducing complexity, right? You either trust your government or you don’t; trust either increases or it deteriorates. In Germany, trust levels increased at the beginning of the pandemic but now those levels have fallen down. It might work in short periods of crisis, but in the long-term, people won’t be guided by that traditional authoritarian ‘follow me’ approach.’

With the likely prolonged impacts of the pandemic, what pressures does this place on the leader?

‘There’s a huge amount of pressure. Leaders are having to manage the demands of day-to-day business on top of the additional pressure to achieve X-Y-Z in a VUCA environment. There will always be new challenges to overcome, but I think organisations can look back and see successful covid responses as a blueprint for change and adaptation.’

What can leaders do and learn to be able to cope longer-term with the burdens of leadership?

‘The notion of the burden of leadership is an interesting one, because it can also be a privilege. As I mentioned before, the preference for leadership has declined, perhaps because anything that comes with more responsibility is a burden; it’s a double-edged sword. I think you need to want leadership to a degree, and it’s the same with power, but that doesn’t mean you have to be power-hungry; you just have to be motivated by the extra responsibility. If that doesn’t work for you, then it’s not a great environment to be in, and one of the most important things to do is to reflect on why it doesn’t work for you.’

How can a psychometric assessment such as the BIP-6F Second Edition assist organisations to make the right decisions?

‘It’s a good start for reflection. In general people are not very good at assessing how they compare to others, so having a systematic, quantitative profile that provides perspective into how they relate to others is helpful for development. It is also beneficial in the selection process; if you are recruiting for a position that requires a lot of interaction with different stakeholders and a certain amount of pressure, you may want someone who scores highly for stability and cooperation. Alternatively, if you have a team that is getting along too well, it might be helpful to introduce someone with a lower level of cooperation who is a little more task-focussed. That’s not to say that it’s a positive or negative thing, it’s just an application idea.’

What other characteristics are more likely to be able to navigate an organisation or a team through a VUCA situation?

‘We haven’t mentioned social competence but that’s also an important factor; it has the facet of empathy, and also enthusiasm. If you as a leader are not enthusiastic about the strategy or the message that you are conveying, it’s a lot to ask your employees to be. A certain amount of discipline is also necessary; having good attention to detail, being organised and meeting deadlines is critical. Finally, dominance. As a leader you are by definition given authority and power; you are given the floor to exert influence on others, which is an expectation of a leader to a degree.’

The BIP-6F Second Edition is available on the Hogrefe Testsystem (HTS), our secure, high-performance online test platform. Click here to learn more about this exciting new measure or contact us directly at customersupport@hogrefe.co.uk to find out how to get started.