Black Swan Leadership for the VUCA world

A new phrase has entered the leadership lexicon ‘VUCA’ standing for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, it’s used to describe the context in which many leaders are trying to offer effective leadership. Uncertainty creates new challenges and demands a new understanding of leadership


The Challenges of leading through uncertainty are many:

  • How to keep up morale and motivation in an atmosphere of increasing despondency?
  • How to maintain a sense of moving forward when the future is uncertain?
  • How to create hope and optimism in a general atmosphere of pessimism?
  • How to remain pro-active while reacting to events you can’t control?
  • How to keep your best people while they wonder how safe the ship is?
  • How to stay closely attuned to changes in the business environment while focussing on getting the best from your organization?
  • How to be flexible enough to respond to changing situations while still making plans and doing things?
  • How to continue to get the best from people while they are distracted for concerns for their own future?

While some of these challenges are about business acumen, most are about knowing how to lead and manage people when you can’t give them what you think they want, a rosy picture of the organization’s, and their, future.

Many leaders become paralysed by their inability to give clear, far reaching answers about the future and so try to avoid such conversations altogether. Alternatively they offer false hope and promises, which are rapidly spotted as such by those they seek to reassure.

So what can you do instead?

Become a black swan leader, able to hold contradictory ideas in mind at the same time, such as being prepared and being flexible

Be honest with people that you don’t know for sure what the future holds - At the same time be optimistic about possibilities

Engage and involve people as much as possible in making the decisions that CAN be made

Develop the ability to act ‘as if’ you knew what to do for the best - While at the same time being flexible enough to change tack when new information comes in

Recognise that everything you say and do as a leader has meaning for your followers, there is no such thing as a neutral transmission of information or ‘doing nothing’ - So make sure you manage the meaning you create by how you communicate and by what you are focus on

Help your people make the most productive and useful sense of what is happening

Act ‘as if’ they both have a future both inside the company and out. - So ensure that they realise that the projects do are doing will increase the likelihood of the company surviving, and, increase their market worth

Don’t make promises you can’t keep

Find someone outside the organization (a coach for instance) with whom you can have the ‘dark night of the soul’ conversations, don’t burden or scare your staff with these - Yet at times be prepared to be honest that you too have doubts and uncertainties about the future, your future

Be prepared to listen to people’s concerns about the future and offer what you can to help them feel better

Try to ensure that people continue to feel that they have choices about what they can do

Find ways that people can be pro-active in dealing with the needs of the business and their concerns

Recognise that you have a wealth of expertise, intelligence, skill and resource in your organization to help meet the challenges ahead

Don’t feel because you are the leader you must have all the answers

Be your best authentic self

Recognise and encourage the value of positive emotions – laughter, playfulness, passion

Create stories of hope, possibility and good futures that are accepting of current realities

People know you can’t fortune tell. What they want is that you acknowledge how they feel and work to help them feel better about things so that they can pro-actively do things to help make a good future more likely.