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Is there really a VUCA World?

Someone asked me why I use the acronym VUCA in my book on sustainable leadership. He referred to a statement by Rob Briner who says that VUCA is an empty word. Change and uncertainty has always been around, so it’s nothing special.

That is true. Change has always been around. If you look with the perspective of a historian many events in the past are similar or even worse than the ones we are witnessing today. Let’s have a look (with a Western eye).

L’histoire se répète?

Migration – There have been migration flows before. In the 5th and 6th century AD Europe was shifting and entire peoples moved. These events still resonate in names, relics, language. You can read about migration here.
Wars – There have been wars in Europe. As a matter of fact we are in the longest period without war. You can see an interactive map of conflicts here.
Isolationism and Nationalism – There have been leaders who proclaimed isolationist views before. There have been emperors, dictators, … far worse than the Trumps of today.
Climate Change – Climate is volatile. There were even periods with a (limited) climate change. For a history of the current climate change you can check this BBC-page.
Technology – Technological progress is of all ages. And resistance to technology is also of all ages. In the first industrial revolution the Luddites were against industrialisation in the textile industry in England.
When I was 7 my mother said I would have a difficult life. In 1976 there was high unemployment, a conflict in the Middle East, the oil crisis. So what’s different? And why do we think that today is VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

What’s different?

War and Peace

First 72 years of peace in Europe make us think war is not an option. Wars have been fought in the Middle east, Korea, Vietnam, … The civil war in the Balkan and the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Basque Country, and the terrorist attacks in Germany and Italy came closer but had a limited impact. We have gotten used to peace and we are reluctant to recognize the change. Armies have shrunk and investments in defence and intelligence seem to lose in priority to employment and the economy. The recent terrorist attacks bring war back to us and in the perception this is tough. We have lost our resilience and we thought the armed conflict is for other continents.

Fast Technology

Second. Technological change has never been as fast as it is today. The scientific progress and the technological innovation is unprecedented. The speed of technological development, penetration and demise is scary. When two computers can develop a language human do not understand, it’s scary. This is a first in history.

The 100 year Life

Third, life expectancy has increased. Never before have so many people reached the age over 80 years. This changes society tremendously. This is a first in history. Check Gratton & Scott’s 100 year Life.

A Global Word

Fourth, in the past many of the disruptions were contained. They stayed within their boundaries. But today, everything is interconnected. This interconnectedness opens a lot of opportunities, but poses threats. In a global economy, there are winners and losers. And they can be in different countries and continents. In the past a change in one part of the world had less effects on the other part of the world. This is a first in history.

Climate Change

Fifth, climate change. The weather is going off the rails. Those who think it’s a hoax cannot deny the increasing temperature, the melting ice, the rising sea, the forest fires, the droughts, … These climate changes will lead to migration, conflicts etc.

A Sense of Loss

Sixth, there’s a fear of loss. Never before was there this kind of welfare and wealth. Humanity has collectively progressed. Even when we think the world is worse of than ever before, it’s not true. But people see that a part of the luxury comes under pressure.

VUCA is Both Reality and Perception

These 6 elements create VUCA. To me VUCA is both a reality and a perception. The latter element is important because people have a limited frame of reference. They don’t look back at the crusades, or the fall of the Roman Empire. They look at what they have known yesterday, what they experience today and what they want for tomorrow. And they have a VUCA-feeling.
And though there are similarities between today and previous periods in time, there are a couple of firsts.  And what’s more, the evolution is faster than ever. In the past we were facing stability with some disruptions. Today we have continuous and accelerating disruptions. And if you take into consideration that people have a short reference period, these disruptions are threatening, scary.

The Importance of Leadership

In these times people are looking for certainty and predictability. Nobody can provide that. Leadership has never been so difficult but it has never been more important. And leaders need to resort to other means than authoritarian leadership. Leaders cannot base their leadership on power, position or popularity. They need  to base it on character because character is the only aspect of leadership that is sustainable.
Unfortunately, I see the rise of a kind of leadership that does not solve the problem. On the contrary it adds complexity and uncertainty. Make America Great Again, America First, the Brexit, radical religious movements, geopolitical tensions, … all this does not solve anything. And also on the shop floor we see a kind of reductive or reduced leadership on the rise.
People are looking for control. They have the illusion that leaders can stop the shifts in the world. Or at least they think leaders can shape the shifts. We can’t. The best thing populist leaders can do is hide the truth for the naïve followers. Maybe some of the nationalist populist leaders can slow changes down. But very often the cost of doing so is greater than the benefits. No leader and no country can change much and even if it were possible, they cannot do it alone.
Through sustainable leadership, leaders prepare their organisations on coping with change and to become stronger in a VUCA-world. And that’s what they need to do. If everything changes around us, let’s be as prepared as possible.

VUCA or not. That’s not the Question

It does not matter how new or how intense VUCA is. It does not matter if the world has become vucanised or not. Leaders and their teams cope with constant and accelerating change. Their main mission is to serve the others and to create a context of trust, meaningfulness, growth and reciprocity. Such an environment is the best antidote against the despair and the helplessness a VUCA world inspires people to.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • Dr Dale Hudson, PsyD says:

    Hi David,
    Well, if its true that leadership has failed, “I see the rise of a kind of leadership that does not solve the problem” it should be no surprise to find that leadership has NOT JUST failed, it has been failing for quite sometime. The VUCA world in which you speak is not just “external” to an individual or to an organization, community, or nation. It also occurs “internally” within each of us, at some point in time, and for some, its always happening. Stress, anxiety, and even fear are the hallmarks of an “internal VUCA world.” Leadership or the role of a leader seems especially susceptible. Arguably when this internal world reaches a certain level, and its different for all people, then the individual has NO CHOICE but to direct his or her energy and resources (both physical and mental) to regain a sense of safety and to protect themselves from the uncertainties and even threats. Often leaders resort to as you say, control. having control means having say in what happens! But attempts to regain control are, again, as you say just an illusion. Exercising control may have worked in the past but the circumstances, context, and environment were quite different. As humans we tend to repeat old ways of thinking and reacting even if they are no longer work or are appropriate.
    So, what does this mean? It means that others around a leader see how he/she acts and reacts and over time, with the danger being, that employees, peers, etc begin to adopt this failed thinking as the norm! In other words, failed thinking begets failed thinking and the cycle of failed leadership continues. the best way to break this cycle is to create an environment that makes other feel safe! Because the natural reaction to feeling safe is trust, cooperation, meaningfulness, and growth. And after all, isn’t that the kind leadership and organization we would all like to work in?

  • Hi David,
    Sharp analysis and well written! I also like Dale Hudson’s remark that VUCA reflects a state of the external world, as much as it seems to reflect an internal frame of mind. In the latter sense, last week I was observing my daughter, who is rapidly entering puberty. I couldn’t stop thinking that to her developing mind, everything around her must feel volatile, uncertain, complex and most certainly ambiguous. And, as you and Dale point out, this has impact on the way she tries to lead, among her peers, as well as on her follower behaviour. That’s right, we’re not leaders 24/7, in fact, I think every leader has the need to also be a follower.
    However, being in control certainly is part of this process. From a leader stance, it means relying heavily on in-group and out-group processes, where dissident thoughts and opinions are met with rapid exclusion from the group. Being with the crowd brings status and power. Rather than to be open to alternatives, it is tightening the group’s access to information that helps to keep things stable and certain. From a follower point of view, it can go two ways, either you enter a stage of rebellion, where you try to rally like-minded peers to form a new group, or you completely surrender to whoever holds the in-group, often bringing about internal conflicts, and ambiguous and complex feelings. To be able to transition to a leadership position, depends on who you are as a person, your character (formed by both nature and nurture, yes). This, I believe, rhymes well with what you call authentic leadership (if I recall correctly). To me, it also is tight heavily to one’s mental capacities, and especially the capacity to simulate the future. This uniquely human capacity, is the key to thinking beyond today’s hype and influences. To me, that’s an important part of sustainable leadership.
    Maybe, humankind is entering it’s puberty as well, from an evolutionary point of view. At least as a metaphore, but it stuck to my mind. And at least on the surface, it seems to hold up and provide a frame of thinking about VUCA, be it the ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ part. Maybe the sort of leadership we are seeing is a response to a VUCA state of mind, as we see in adolescence. If that is the case, the bad news is, puberty can get ugly. On the bright side: We all survived and it is sure to pass!

    • dducheyne says:

      Thank you. I’m not sure humanity is entering its puberty, although I like the comparison. VUCA is a perception of the world compared to recent history. I guess we could call recent history an adult state of the world – in some parts of the world. But today I see a regression. Humanity is what it is. It does not change. I feel a big erupting.

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