The leader as conductor in a VUCA world
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

Photo: Barbara Hannigan conducts the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.

Every leader has now had the opportunity to consciously practice leading in a VUCA world for a good year.

When I write “every leader” I mean everyone.

Self-leadership has taken more than the usual amount of energy, as we have lived and worked with:

  • Uncertainty
  • The lack of predictability and plan-ability
  • The loss of personal freedoms

This collective experience stresses all of us on a deep emotional level – even those of us who are not aware of it.

While privileged people experience many positives, like not commuting to work, having enough space and privacy for the home office, being able to do fulfilling work, having ready access to nature, time for self-care, and hobbies, and enjoying good relationships in their small bubbles, even they likely experience higher cortisol levels because of the underlying stress of not knowing what’s happening, and what the future is likely to bring.

In short, a lack of control is what all of us have experienced, with a crucial difference:

Formal leaders got exposed as not being in control and having the answers.

Unsurprisingly, many leaders we work with do speak to the hard truth of having to let go of controlling outcomes, and are working towards the shift to opening up to possibilities.

This, of course, has always been a necessary shift in the VUCA world, but whereas VUCA might have been an academic concept for most, a year ago, I believe it is fair to say that by now, we can all relate to what it looks and feels like.

But what does it take to lead in a VUCA world?

First, let’s remember what VUCA stands for.

Volatile: Change is rapid and unpredictable
Uncertain: The present is unclear, and the future is uncertain.
Complex: Many different and interconnected factors come into play. We can understand what was cause and effect in hindsight.
Ambiguous: A lack of clarity about what’s happening. There are no precedents, but many unknowns. Awareness of situations might even be lacking.

In this context, it is impossible to lead with answers.

That’s why the old and tired top down leadership model still produces so many paralysed leaders, burnt out CEOs, and whole companies stuck in blind action.

It’s time to lay that obsolete leadership paradigm at rest.

To become future proof, leaders must learn to powerfully unleash and harness the creativity of their people.

They must learn to invite and empower their people to step up to leadership, no matter where in the organisation’s hierarchy they find themselves.

Leadership is not a position, it is a choice to take responsibility: To bring in ideas, concerns, different experiences and perspectives that might challenge the status-quo.

A great leader is like the conductor of an orchestra who, while conducting, is able to listen and respond to what is needed in every moment to elicit peak performance from the musicians. Is it more or less of the violins or celli, a slowing down of pace, or a slowly building crescendo?

Great leaders listen into what needs to emerge right now, in this moment, and they do so by listening to those whom they lead.

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