Embracing the VUCA of Strategic Leadership

Posted by
October 5, 2021

Topic: Strategic Leadership

Written by Karin Blair


What strategic leaders have in common is a fire in the belly to make change in the world. As a strategic leader you know, on some level, that you’re here to shape a future that does not yet exist. 

It sounds exciting, empowering, impactful. Until the discomfort of strategic leadership starts to emerge.

Strategic leadership is not about being comfortable. In fact, it requires us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It involves risks, not only at the business level, but at the human level. The risk of incompetence, rejection, failure. 

The Risks of Strategic Leadership

To amplify our strategic impact, we must build the capacity and resilience to manage those fears so that we can most effectively:

  • Confront critics, doubters, and disbelievers (including ourselves), 
  • Face the consequence of our beliefs, and 
  • Navigate the VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) inherent in strategy.

What “we can name, we can tame”—so let’s take a deeper look into these risks and challenges of strategic leadership so you can have greater choice (and effectiveness) in how you lead through them.

1. VUCA Challenge = Risk of Incompetence

The risk of incompetence involves admitting, “I don’t know.”

And when you are creating the future, not knowing is a given. No one can truly know the future. At best, you can see what other people can’t see yet. As William Gibson said, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” 

When you lead strategically, you take the road less traveled. It is in those moments of uncertainty, when you take the leap of courage to stand for your beliefs, that you find the opportunity to create tremendous long‑term value. You also face a tremendous amount of risk. 

What if you are wrong? Will you risk your credibility for your envisioned future? 

In the face of uncertainty, there are two choices: focus your attention on the possibility or the risk. The first allows you to take the next step toward that future. 

It is like driving down a foggy road when you can’t see more than two feet in front of you. You don’t know the roads, and you can’t see where they will take you. But you believe. You trust in your direction, the next two feet of road, and your ability to keep sensing, adapting, and course‑correcting as needed.

When we focus on the risk, fear tends to “grab the steering wheel,” taking us into a downward spiral of less effective habits and ways of leading. 

2. Critics Challenge = Risk of Rejection

And if your own doubts aren’t enough, there will always be a group of people that will question you, challenge you, and won’t believe in your vision and recommendations. At times, that group will be the people closest to you. You might feel betrayed by them. Why won’t they just give you the benefit of the doubt? Trust you? Believe in you? 

How will you react or respond? 

3. Consequence of Belief Challenge = Risk of Failure

And what if we do get it wrong? 

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz closed every Starbucks store for a training in May 2018. In explaining why, he offered an admission of guilt: “We had to stand up to our people and our customers and say … over the years, there’s been a dilution of quality, and to continue like this is a mistake.” 

Accepting responsibility for what is, even when we don’t want to face it. And then standing for our beliefs, even when it invites the judgment of others. Investors. Competitors. 

This is strategic leadership in action, and this is also where it most threatens to "come off the rails." The risk of incompetence compounds with the risk of failure, which compounds with the risk of rejection. 

Will you take the risk and the responsibility of strategic leadership?

Know Your Leadership Habits in the Face of VUCA

The risks of game‑changing strategic leadership are unavoidable. But you can build the capacity to choose how you react or respond to these risks. 

Most of us fall on a continuum in how we lead through these challenges and foundational threats to our biology: with great conviction or great connection. We have habitual ways of reacting. They can vary by situation. For many of us, it is not fully conscious. Each has benefits. Each has costs.

Leading with Conviction

Some leaders have strong convictions about the future direction of their organizations. They don’t lack clarity or certainty (despite the inherent uncertainty of the future). They struggle to drive alignment, engagement, and commitment to their vision. Their challenge is getting those “darn people” to turn their strategy into reality. The power of hierarchy can drive compliance, but not commitment. And in matrix organizations, alignment is essential.

Leading with Connection

Other leaders are very receptive and inclusive of different ideas and perspectives. They are collaborative and approachable. They struggle to step out on a limb and stand for a bold and distinct future that they believe in, especially in the face of challenge or resistance. Their big ideas become more incremental as they try to avoid conflict and sustain team harmony. 

Despite all our capabilities and accomplishments, we still can be reduced to this simple choice, whether we realize it or not: Belong OR stand out. 

Leading with Conviction AND Connection

What if we could belong AND stand out? This is the essence of strategy. To stand out from the competition in ways our ideal customers value.

And the essence of game‑changing strategic leaders is the ability to lead with conviction AND connection. The most impactful strategic leaders strike a balance: maintaining strong conviction for a strategic vision that is shaped and co‑created through connection, receptivity, and inclusion of the ideas, perspectives, and contributions of others. 

Are You a Game‑Changing Strategic Leader?

If you’re here, reading this, you most likely are. Willing to take a risk, being comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

Strategic leadership is a journey, and no matter where you are in that journey, you will find new challenges and incredible rewards. 

Are you ready to take the next step?


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