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VUCA Times

We live in a VUCA world, and there is no escape. The word “crisis” has appeared on almost every front page of the newspapers in recent months: the war in Ukraine, the aftermath of the corona pandemic, the economic crisis, the energy crisis, the political crisis… You name it. The effects of these difficult times are undoubtedly trickling down to most organizations. In some organizations, workers become temporarily unemployed as production decreases because of skyrocketing energy and raw material prices. In addition, the increase in bankruptcies, decrease in temp agency contracts, the rise of outplacement, and the mounting use of temporary unemployment and furlough schemes indicate the coming of a deep and prolonged recession. So more than ever, organizations face the challenge of reinventing themselves to stay above water during these hard times.

In these turbulent times when uncertainty sometimes reigns supreme, we might ask whether there is an “ideal leader” in crises and whether any skills are necessary to make organizations resilient. We could have asked the same question two years ago when the corona pandemic mandated work at home: “Is there such a thing as a digital leader?” And the answer to both questions is the same: There is no such thing as an ideal “digital leader” or “crisis leader.” Leadership in this VUCA world comes down to effortlessly mastering the essentials of leadership to achieve sustainable leadership. But what are these essentials?

Strong leaders can transform VUCA as we know it into a new VUCA: The V stands then for Vision: what is the direction?
U for Understanding: what is influencing us? C for Clarity: what are our priorities?
A for Agility: how can we adjust while staying true to our values?

Philippe Persyn

Leaders need to build resilient teams and organizations. And the way to do that is to introduce humanity in business. That sounds lofty, but let's never forget that strategies only fail because people do. And when strategies are successful, it's because of people's competencies, resourcefulness, and agility.

David Ducheyne

The Essentials

#1. Trust is the glue in times of uncertainty

The worst thing a leader can do is ignore the fact that the organization is in difficult times or intentionally hide information about it. Knowledge hiding has negative consequences for collaboration, creativity, and innovation. On top of that, it creates an increased sense of insecurity and distrust. Trust is crucial to get people on board and make the organization resilient in times of crisis, and trust gets people from A to B.

I often talk about trust in organizations, and we take it too much for granted. These days, many people distrust their leaders. There's much division in our society, creating even more distrust. People develop trust in good times, but the litmus test is in difficult times. The three basic questions to assess one's trustworthiness are 1) is the leader competent, 2) are they loyal to me, and 3) do they tell the truth?

David Ducheyne

It is about creating clarity and developing understanding.

Philippe Persyn

#2. Motivate your people

Keeping employees motivated during tough times is perhaps one of the hardest things to do as a leader. How can a leader keep people on the same page and make sure they stay motivated even in times of crisis and setbacks? One way to do this is to highlight progress, even if it is small. People tend to ignore progress out of fear that the discrepancy between the desired and current state is too large. After all, people want to maintain a positive self-image. So as a leader, it is essential to put progress on the agenda, especially in times of setbacks.

"Be more interested than interesting" is an often-heard quote. This statement should be the motto of every leader, especially when the organization is in difficult times and people find it hard to stay motivated. Motivating people and putting them first is about being curious as a leader and asking questions and learning how to listen. It's about considering the specific needs of each individual. In addition, inspirational leadership also means telling a story that addresses every stakeholder. Storytelling is essential to get people on board and to keep people motivated to go the extra mile in times of crisis.

Annelien Langendries

When people ask me how they should motivate others, I often answer not to touch anything when they are already motivated. Yes, telling stories is a way to accentuate meaningfulness, and that is an important motivator. People might not like what they're doing, but when they think it's meaningful, they will go for what the message implies.

It's often about creating a context that inspires people to perform extraordinarily.

David Ducheyne

A clear direction and remaining true to your values and the organization's values are paramount.

Philippe Persyn

#3. Find a balance

In times of crisis, outside influences can cause objectives to change, tighter deadlines to occur, and more pressure on employees. On the one hand, task-oriented leadership can be effective since it involves strict monitoring to ensure people meet deadlines. On the other hand, people-oriented leadership can counterbalance here since a leader must safeguard employee well-being. If people are on the verge of burnout, deadlines will not be able to be met either. So, it is imperative to maintain this balance between the two.

There is no contradiction between task-oriented and people-oriented leadership, and both are necessary, and I prefer to talk about sustainable leadership, which is future-oriented and integrates the interests of all stakeholders. We know that focusing only on the task or only on the people's needs won't be sustainable or effective.

That is why leaders need to versatile and adapt the style to both the current events and the needs and strengths of people. And that is also why leaders need to understand how they want to deal with power in the organizations. Leaders who do not want to play the power game in organizations are lost.

Leadership quality is a significant determining factor for employee outcomes such as engagement, trust, flexibility, and well-being. That is why we need to focus on it.

David Ducheyne

It"s a balancing act while keeping a clear line of sight on priorities.

Philippe Persyn

#4. It all starts with ME

To be an inspiring leader, one needs to think about oneself as a leader. Self-reflection is a way to do this. It’s like taking a pit stop and looking at where one is as a leader and where one wants to go. It’s about questioning oneself as a leader and asking what could be better. It’s about becoming aware of what role to take at what time and for whom. It’s about knowing one’s strengths and knowing well when one is derailing. Strengths can become pitfalls. Developing oneself as a leader is a never-ending story and should be at least as important or even more critical as pursuing results.

In summary, people can develop individual resilience in different ways. A few examples have been listed above, such as mastering positive appraisal and coaching both employees and leaders. Training resilience has been proven to be effective as it not only improves individual resilience but also helps to develop mental health and generates subjective well-being in employees (7). Other benefits of resilience training include enhanced psychosocial functioning and improved performance. So as a society, we should really take individual resilience seriously as only resilient individuals can form resilient teams, which contribute to resilient organizations, and resilient organizations create a resilient society.

Leaders need a learning mindset versus a judging mindset because learning makes a leader, team, or organization grow.

Philippe Persyn

Self-development is the basis of leadership development. Leaders need to be aware of the impact they have and also be humble. The heroic leaders are bad news.

David Ducheyne

#5 Executive Coaching

“It all starts with me” also brings another topic on the table: the opportunities provided by executive coaching. Taking care of themselves should be a priority for executives. In times of crisis even more than usual. Yet, we find it often neglected by them: they think they should take care of their teams and businesses, and that their self-care will take care of… itself.

Executive coaching, specifically in times of crisis, is beneficial on three dimensions:

1. A neutrally listening “presence” can be of priceless value, when trying to take some
distance from ongoing turmoil. In order to navigate it more proactively.
2. Reflection on one's own leadership, even if crisis management may seem more often needed.
3. Reflection on the leadership that the company is going to need in the future. And
developing that.

Karl Van Hoey

Individual conversations are the most effective kind of intervention. Giving attention to someone's needs is much more powerful than any collective approach. We see that in career counseling, in change management and also in leadership development. Some people need a mentor, others need a coach. But the impact is similar on different fields. Coaching is one of the most powerful levers to support the leadership development process because it makes people aware about the situation and makes them responsible for the developmental actions. The self-efficacy, a condition for leadership, is strongly influenced through coaching.

David Ducheyne

Conclusion

In the end it’s all about effectiveness. The simplest definition of leadership is getting people from A to B. How you do that is the main question. And to answer that any leader needs to understand what their impact is on the willingness and ability to get from A to B. On sunny days it’s easier to have an impact, but the true test of leadership is when there is stormy weather.

Černe, M., Nerstad, C., Dysvik, A., & Skerlavaj, M. (2014). What Goes Around Comes Around: Knowledge Hiding, Perceived Motivational Climate, and Creativity. The Academy of Management Journal, 57, 172-192

Legood, A., van der Werff, L., Lee, A., & Den Hartog, D. (2021). A meta-analysis of the role of trust in the leadership-performance relationship. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 30(1), 1-22.

Webb, Thomas & Chang, Betty & Benn, Yael. (2013). ‘The Ostrich Problem’: Motivated Avoidance or Rejection of Information About Goal Progress. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 794–807.

Authors of this blog are Annelien Langendries, David Ducheyne, Philippe Persyn, and Karl Van Hoey.

Photo by Josh Sorenson: https://www.pexels.com/photo/body-of-water-1154510/

Leadership is one of the human capabilities organizations need to be resilient. The other capabilities are learning and collaborating.
We put leadership at the forefront because it is a determining capability for strategic success. 

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