Leading in a VUCA World

By: Sattar Bawany, Managing Director, EDA Asia Pacific & C-Suite Master Executive Coach

22667360 - focused on strategy with a businessman as a high wire tight rope walker confronting adversity with a web of confused tangled group of wires trying to distract from the planned business goal for success

VUCA is an acronym that emerged from the military in the 1990s. It describes the “fog of war” — the chaotic conditions that are encountered on a modern battlefield. Its relevance to leaders in business is clear, as these conditions are highly descriptive of the environment in which business is conducted every day. Leadership as usual, including creating a vision, is not enough in a VUCA world. The acronym ‘VUCA’ stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

Volatile: Things change unpredictably, suddenly, extremely, especially for the worse.

Uncertain: Important information is not known or definite, doubtful, unclear about the present situation and future outcomes, not able to be relied upon.

Complex: Many different and connected parts: multiple key decision factors, interaction between diverse agents, emergence, adaptation, co-evolution, weak signals.

Ambiguous: Open to more than one interpretation; the meaning of an event can be understood in different ways.

Leading in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous not only presents a challenging environment in which leaders must operate and for executive development programs to have an impact, but also open the door to a range of new competencies that are required in order to succeed. Cognitive Readiness, the preparedness and agility to handle the situation at hand and still prevail, is a valued skillset in the VUCA world. Today’s leaders must be equipped with the mental, emotional, and interpersonal preparedness for uncertainty and risk.

Organizations are ranking the development of cognitive readiness skills as a top priority for leading in a VUCA business environment. This could be because both current and emerging leaders are committing to developing these mental capabilities, or it may simply reflect curiosity about the latest leadership development topic and a desire to avoid being left behind. Either way, two issues are present. First, organizations will need to think creatively about the processes they employ to accelerate the development of cognitive readiness in high potential leaders. Second, organizations may want to explain why, in practice, cognitive readiness is important to their success and then define in much greater depth their expectations of perspective.

To lead successfully in the VUCA world, leaders need to LEAP through the fog and demonstrate core cognitive readiness competencies, as well as possesses the following traits:


Liberal: Open to new behavior or opinions and willing to adapt or discard existing values if and when necessary to adapt to the new world.

Exuberant: Filled with lively energy with sense of passion and optimism in engaging the team and other stakeholders.

Agility: Proficiently change and evolve the learning organization with next-gen leadership competencies including cognitive readiness, critical thinking, and emotional/social intelligence, amongst others.

Partnership: Build trust-based partnership with teams as well as externally with other stakeholders including customers and suppliers.

Traditional critical thinking is the ability to recognize assumptions, evaluate arguments, and draw conclusions. The traditional critical thinking competencies typically include strategic thinking, creative thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making. The 2016 Trends in Executive Development defines cognitive readiness, on the other hand, as the mental, emotional, and interpersonal preparedness for uncertainty and risk. It complements critical thinking by emphasizing non-rational, non-logical skills. EDA has defined the following as key cognitive readiness competencies:

  • Situational Awareness
  • Attentional Control
  • Metacognition (thinking about your thinking)
  • Sensemaking (connecting the dots)
  • Intuition
  • Learning Agility
  • Adaptability
  • Dealing with Ambiguity
  • Managing Emotions

Overall, strong cognitive readiness skills allow leaders to maintain a better sense of self-control in stressful situations.

There is growing evidence that the range of abilities that constitute what is now commonly known as emotional and social intelligence plays a key role in determining success in life and in the workplace. Extensive longitudinal research by Centre for Executive Education (CEE) has uncovered links between specific elements of emotional and social intelligence and specific behaviors associated with leadership effectiveness and ineffectiveness in developing an impactful organizational climate that is supportive in driving enhanced employee and customer engagement resulting in the achievement of the desired organizational results.

Managers often fail to appreciate how profoundly the organizational climate can influence financial results. It can account for nearly a third of financial performance. Organizational climate, in turn, is influenced by leadership style—by the way that managers motivate direct reports, gather and use information, make decisions, manage change initiatives, and handle crises. There are six basic leadership styles. Each derives from different emotional intelligence competencies, works best in particular situations, and affects the organizational climate in different ways.

The ability to create a vision and engage others around it can be powerfully developed through mentoring and coaching. The “hands-on” approach of mentoring enables leaders to observe what someone who has mastered these important skills does, and to solicit advice, input, and coaching on how to transfer what they have observed into their own work. It may be more challenging to find a mentor who also has top notch, highly developed cognitive readiness skills, so being mindful of the mentor’s skillset will be a key to success.

Executive coaching can also help leaders excel in creating a vision, engaging others around it, and sharpen the cognitive readiness skills needed to thrive in a VUCA environment. This integrative coaching approach would focus on a variety of skills working in tandem. Executives, human resources partners, mentors, coaches, and others involved in the development program must also be in alignment on specific goals and participate in regular meetings to discuss progress.

About the Author:

Professor Sattar Bawany is the Managing Director & C-Suite Master Executive Coach with Executive Development Associates (EDA) in Asia Pacific. He is also the Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Executive Education (CEE). EDA is the Strategic Partner of Centre for Executive Education (CEE) in offering a suite of Executive Development solutions in the Asia Pacific region.


Bonnie Hagemann, Sattar Bawany et al. (2016), Research on Trends in Executive Development: A Benchmark Report, published by published by Executive Development Associates (EDA); Pearson TalentLens and Performance Assessment Network (PAN), February 2016.

Bonnie Hagemann & Sattar Bawany (2016), Enhancing Leadership and Executive Development – Latest Trends & Best Practices in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 03.2016.

Sattar Bawany (2016), “NextGen Leaders for a VUCA World: Transforming Future Leaders for Success” in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 08.2016 (August 2016).

Sattar Bawany (2016), “Leading in a VUCA Business Environment” in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 07.2016

Sattar Bawany (2014), “Building High Performance Organisations with Results-based Leadership (RBL) Framework” in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 11.2014