Article 18 January 2021

In recent years, management literature has been peppered with references to the VUCA world, but the pandemic has brought home the reality of what VUCA really means.  The volatility of COVID infections, the uncertainty the pandemic brings to families and individuals, the complexity of issues for organisations and the ambiguity that it brings to our sense of what is real, what is normal.  

A lot of us have the fatigue and anxiety of living with a pandemic for so long, the pressure of hybrid school options, the vulnerability of aged relatives, the intensity of media speculation, the constraints on  where we can go, the nervous wait for vaccination, and the uncertainty of what’s next. Days are getting brighter, and with vaccines there is hope, yet 2020 has taught us to expect the unexpected.  

We seem to have hit peak VUCA

During the course of the pandemic, we have been working with leaders to help them navigate the challenges and find their path to agility.  Our approach has varied from one context to another, but we have most often found ourselves reaching for  Systemic Team Coaching to help leadership teams to collaboratively respond to the challenges they face, and for Appreciative Inquiry to enable people to build on what is working, even in the face of all the pressures of 2020.  We have helped leaders build deeper psychological safety, despite and often helped by virtual working.  Our role has often been to help leaders and teams to learn from the searing experiences of leading through crisis, thus enabling them to come out of this stronger.  

The pandemic has thrown up questions about what it now takes to lead.  Never before has there been such a focus on care for teams and colleagues, and it has been imperative for  leaders to create connection, to encourage dialogue and sharing of experiences, and to process what teams and individuals are going through.  As leaders, we need to attend to the humanity first if we are to enable people to sustainably deliver in tough circumstances.

So how can leaders be the best of themselves during these times?  

  • Tune in –  This is  a time to tune in to people and get a sense of the professional and personal pressures they face.  Are some of your people are home-schooling, providing with elder-care, coping with isolation, worried about loved ones, or all the above?  What is that like for them?  What of these experiences are shared with your own?  Can you make it safe to appropriately disclose these circumstances – so as to better adapt and enable your people?   
  • Share purpose and vision – No doubt you have your strategy and goals for the year ahead, but what is the sense of purpose and vision that sits above that?  Perhaps, right now more than ever, people need to connect their work to a meaningful ‘greater whole’, to focus their energies. 
  • Come together – Leading can be a lonely experience at times, but the ability to lean into your network of peer leaders  can provide the strength and support to survive and thrive.
  • Listen always – Purposeful listening is a foundational leadership skill, especially now.  This is the capacity to be and stay in the moment, listen empathically to colleagues and even if distractions happen, as they so often can in virtual and work-from-home settings, find ways to rapidly ground yourself and re-engage.  
  • Use your intuition – Leaders worry that when we are not seeing our people, in person, it is  harder to sense when someone is disengaged or struggling.  But as we have experienced many times over since switching to virtual work, it is perfectly possible to connect at depth with your people.  You just have to create the intention to do so, and value this enough to open up the necessary time and space. 

The language of the times highlights the nature of the challenge.  We have become accustomed to using intense emotional language in our everyday conversations, with colleagues as much as friends and family.  So, leaders, mind your language, and remember that so much of what is needed from you is to offer and amplify hope and do what you can to minimise anxiety.  

We hope these ‘words to the wise’ can help leaders. What are you finding helpful in your own leadership experience? 


Andrea.jpeg Andrea Cusack