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Meta-Skills for Adaptive/Agile Leadership in a “VUCA” landscape


High-performing managers have evolved to demonstrate particular traits for success. They know how to compete by identifying the rules and formulas for winning; they excel at setting goals, and creating maps and processes for achievement; they are experts and authorities in their fields; and they derive answers from a rich set of experiences and knowledge. In an environment with spreadsheet projections, linear processes, and “this therefore that” algorithms, these traits were integral to a manager’s success.

However, recent and rapid changes bearing down on the business landscape has dramatically altered the lay of the land. Business now runs in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). While superficially the traditional traits of managers appear to be indicators of high-performance, these very traits create obstacles in navigating through the turbulence, and can derail efforts to lead an organization into the future.

In contrast, these capabilities are critical for effective leadership in the VUCA world...

  • Discernment: Sensing the right action at the right time, which may also mean no action; knowing when and how to “turn up the heat” or turn it down; acting politically savvy about involved factions; and dancing within the system, seeing the big picture and the small details, and knowing which small details are important.
  • Resilience: Finding one’s equilibrium, buoyancy in the face of grave disappointment or loss, conveying optimism, not naiveté but genuine hope and conviction about a better future; exhibiting hardiness, and stick-to-it-iveness for the journey. 
  • Courage: Using authority and personal power to “speak truth to authority”; to be vulnerable and expose one’s emotional self; to say “I don’t know” when you don’t, especially when others want answers; to act without full information; and to take risks and learn from failing—not fail to learn.
  • Tolerance & respect: For ambiguity and the wildly differing points of view of others, their frailties and yours, and the pace at which things seem to go.
  • And paradoxically, possessing a deep self-awareness of the presence or absence of these capacities. Because even extraordinary adaptive leaders don’t have every capability. It is critical to know one’s self enough to be aware of and manage one’s own actions and reactions. Buttons get pushed, circumstances conspire to devastate, one's own psychic DNA will override at times all the great personal and professional investment in development.

How does someone develop these capabilities? Traditional approaches for leadership development do not adequately support the growth of those capabilities—e.g., we cannot “teach” good judgment or courage, but we can craft experiences that facilitate this type of development...

Want to learn more? Head over to 9 Design Principles for Agile (Adaptive) Leadership Development Experiences to start your development for success.