top of page
  • Writer's pictureROHEI

Leadership Competencies that Matter Most in a VUCA World

The reality of VUCA has created a higher standard for leadership.


In a Nutshell

  • The VUCA world calls for a higher standard of leadership. One that requires a people-first leadership: tough-minded yet tender-hearted

  • Leaders need to learn to be comfortable in an uncomfortable world of VUCA

  • Leaders need to know how to strengthen and nurture their people


VUCA is a military-turned-management buzzword describing the realities businesses face today: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

The term was first used to describe conditions of war, and it has rightly been adopted by the business world where leaders today feel they are navigating through fog and dense forests as they attempt to lead their team through each mission.

A higher standard for leadership

Because of industry disruption, today’s leaders need to lead with a level of vigilance comparable to leading a country in peril. With technology’s effect on the speed of change, one new product can instantly render an existing product useless. Constant shifts in the market, influenced by anything from politics, terrorist attacks, to outbreaks and natural disasters can change anything in an instant.

The VUCA reality has ushered in a new standard of leadership. The survival of a business depends on leadership trained for a VUCA world.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The World Economic Forum refers to this present age as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The fourth industrial revolution is “disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.” says Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum Geneva in The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond. “Emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing are already shaping our our future.”

Emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing are already shaping our our future.

“And the emergence of global platforms and other new business models, finally, means that talent, culture, and organizational forms will have to be rethought.”

As our future is being shaped by these VUCA forces, how should we design and shape and envision our organisation’s leadership development?

What leadership competencies will be most valuable in the future we foresee?

Or rather, the future we cannot foresee.

In the Harvard Business Review article, The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World, Researcher Sunnie Giles shares the results of “the first round of a study of 195 leaders in 15 countries over 30 global organizations. Participants were asked to choose the 15 most important leadership competencies from a list of 74.”

The top 10 competencies were then grouped into 5 themes:

  1. Strong ethics and safety‍

  2. Self-organizing

  3. ‍Efficient learning

  4. ‍Nurtures growth

  5. Connection and belonging

The first theme “combines two of the three most highly rated attributes: “high ethical and moral standards” (67% selected it as one of the most important) and “communicating clear expectations” (56%).”

“Taken together, these attributes are all about creating a safe and trusting environment. A leader with high ethical standards conveys a commitment to fairness, instilling confidence that both they and their employees will honor the rules of the game….In a safe environment employees can relax, invoking the brain’s higher capacity for social engagement, innovation, creativity, and ambition.”

This finding is backed by neuroscience. “When the amygdala registers a threat to our safety,” the article continues, “arteries harden and thicken to handle an increased blood flow to our limbs in preparation for a fight-or-flight response.”

“From a neuroscience perspective, making sure that people feel safe on a deep level should be job #1 for leaders.”

The next four leadership qualities—self organizing, efficient learning, nurtures growth, and connection and belonging—focus on skills that value learning agility and a nurturing culture.

In Decoding Leadership: What Really Matters, the McKinsey Quarterly shares its discovery on Four kinds of behaviors that account for 89% of leadership effectiveness, based on a survey of 81 organizations diverse in geography and industry and size. The four behaviors highlighted are people skills and soft skills:

  1. ‍Be supportive

  2. ‍Operate with strong results orientation

  3. ‍Seek different perspectives

  4. ‍Solve problems differently

In 2015, The World Economic Forum report, The Future of Jobs, shared the top 10 skills needed in 2020—all of which are soft skills and people skills:

  1. ‍Complex Problem Solving

  2. ‍Critical Thinking

  3. Creativity

  4. ‍People Management

  5. ‍Coordinating with Others

  6. ‍Emotional Intelligence

  7. ‍Judgment and Decision Making

  8. ‍Service Orientation

  9. ‍Negotiation

  10. ‍Cognitive Flexibility

Leadership competencies that focus on people continue to be crucial to business success.

People first in a VUCA world

People-focused leadership and military leadership may appear to be the most disparate of ideas yet nowhere are people more willing to put people first—to die for their comrades and fellow citizens—than in the military.

Author, ethnographer, and leadership speaker Simon Sinek shares what the US Marine Corps training and culture taught him about leadership. The first words marines hear in their training are: “I, me, my are no longer in your vocabulary. They will be replaced by “we, together, and us,” Simon shares. “That’s what it means to be a marine.”

In his book Leaders Eat Last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t, Simon writes, “Everything about being a leader is like being a parent. It is about committing to the well-being of those in our care and having a willingness to make sacrifices to see their interests advanced so that they may carry our banner long after we are gone.”

“We all know that no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” Raghu Ragman, Leadership professor and former CEO of the Indian National Intelligence Grid, says, in a TedX Talk called Leading in the VUCA World—How the Armed Forces Do It.

Citing mission success stories, Mr Ragman demonstrated leadership principles in the armed forces “Every soldier must know the strategic intent of the leader....every person must be trained to lead one level up...leaders lead from the frontlines,” were some points of emphasis. These principles reveal how the success of a mission depends on leadership and training.

“Leaders love chaos,” he added “because it is only in chaos that your core drills, your courage, your can-do attitude, all of that comes to the fore. The plans, the structures, the schemes, the processes, are good guidelines….but it is only in chaos that you can find those fleeting opportunities, those passages, those holes, those opportunities that you can take there and then which will enable you to deliver again and again.”

The VUCA world needs leaders who are tough, yet nurturing.

People-first leadership: tough-minded yet tender-hearted

In, Sarah Robb O’Hagan, CEO of Flywheel Sports and author of Extreme You, asks the question Can Great Leaders be Both Tough and Nurturing?

In the article, Sarah shares her experience researching her book Extreme You and quotes psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, whose focus of study is the “grit” that enables people to succeed:

“I am relentlessly demanding. People know that if they come to work for me, their work will never be good enough. There’s no first draft of a scientific paper anyone could write that would make me respond, ‘Great—we’re done!’ They are going to get reams of feedback from me about how we could do better, so we are all continuously improving. But also, when you come to work for me, it’s like now you’re in my family. I will do anything for you..It’s this combination of letting people know you are demanding but you’re supportive.”

Leadership built for the VUCA world

Leadership that is both tough-minded and tender-hearted is what will survive VUCA. This balance of forces is what will enable us to achieve highly valued leadership competencies—strong ethics and safety, and people management—which are necessary for managing risk and navigating through constant change.

At ROHEI, we call this balance of being tough-minded yet tender-hearted Relational Leadership. We shared these principles with business leaders in a talk on The Key to High Trust and High Performance: Relational Leadership at TAFEP’s Fair and Progressive Employment Practices Conference last April.

Relational leadership empowers organisations to create teams in which people think not about “I, me, myself,” but “us, we, together.”

These are the teams that survive and conquer on the battlefield. These are also the teams that will survive and thrive, in the fourth industrial revolution—the world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.


bottom of page