Remember back when “VUCA” (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) only really applied to companies? Those were the days, huh? Lately, with geopolitical discord abroad, political tensions here at home in the U.S., and all manner of policy shifts that could impact U.S. businesses, plenty of entrepreneurs may be wishing for steadier leadership. I know I am.
Once reserved for boardrooms and managerial scenarios, it feels as though VUCA is becoming something of a new normal, impacting leaders and organizations of all sizes, pretty much everywhere. In the opening weeks of Trump’s presidency, the Washington Post‘s Jena MacGregor reported, “Many human resources consultants say the flood of change and news is taking up much more of workers’ energy and focus than in past presidential transitions.” And since the news cycle hasn’t exactly settled down since then, we may just have to get comfortable with that.
We’re now living and operating in a very different world than the one that existed just a year ago. No one really knows what’s coming around the next corner, we’re all operating on uneven footing. Still, business leaders’ jobs haven’t fundamentally changed–we still need to spark creativity, drive innovation, and ensure sustainability. So lately I’ve tried to remind myself that while I can’t predict the future, I can make sure I’m prepared to live in it, make sense of it, and navigate whatever upheavals arise as strategically as possible. And to do that, I keep going back to these three tried-and-true lessons.
Emotions are a natural part of being human, and controlling them doesn’t mean becoming an android. But how well we manage what we’re feeling affects not just our own performance but also our interactions with others. That may sound obvious, but it’s easy to overlook during times of uncertainty.
There’s lots of leadership advice for dealing with self-doubt and anxiety over your own capabilities, but what about pessimism regarding the world out there–the things you can’t control? I’ve found that whenever I’m concentrating on what’s wrong with things happening around me, I’m more liable to fixate on what I find lacking.
It takes a real effort to keep thinking positively when this happens. But personally, I’ve found using affirmations to be helpful for keeping my own objectives in view and coping with things I can’t change. I try to remind myself what I can change–and for the better. I refocus on my immediate sphere of influence, reminding myself that no matter what happens, I still need to work with others to reach our goals.
In good times and bad, I remind myself that holding onto negative emotions won’t help–it’ll just chase away potential collaborators, mentors, partners, and others. This takes effort, practice, and patience, but it’s crucial to cultivating an attitude that attracts support rather than repels it–especially when that’s hard to do.
For communication to get through on all sides, we have to be clear about what we want from each other. That’s true all the time, but especially so during periods of high uncertainty.
There’s no way to start working toward a common goal until everyone understands what it is and what’s expected of them to help achieve it. As a leader, I try especially hard to remain approachable and keep an open dialogue flowing. It’s harder to keep everyone motivated, asking questions, and sharing their concerns when a lot is changing. But getting it right just means doubling down on the type of empathy leaders love to talk about under much steadier conditions.
This means not just clearly articulating our message but also listening actively—without bias or judgment and with a real willingness to consider different perspectives. Again, this is an adage so familiar that it almost sounds trite, but it’s something I keep coming back to these days. It’s about trading messages respectfully and accurately, not just delivering them. Paying heed to their factual as well as emotional content makes for mutual understanding when that’s badly needed.
Leaders may feel their job is to reassure their teams–to talk more than they’re used to. But I’ve found listening to be even more important. When I’m actively listening, I’ll hear genuine concerns and clear a space for talking level-headedly about how to cope with them together.
Humans are resilient creatures. We have a natural capacity to move toward the light, to make the most of bad situations. In turmoil, I know that it’s paramount for me as a business leader to define a better vision for the future. But there’s a risk of getting too philosophical and losing your momentum, your impulse toward action.
I’ve found that in trying to instill a sense of mission and purpose in my organization, I need to keep underscoring the urgency of the tasks at hand. No mission is static–it’s never just a matter of principles. It’s what you do about them that counts. Purpose-driven organizations act and adapt. No matter the political, social, or economic climate, there’s always a way to find new market spaces or gaps in existing ones. There are always problems to solve.
To stay agile and respond to changes my team and I can never predict, I try to keep asking myself:
- What product or service needs, customer tastes, technologies, socioeconomic factors, and cultural mores are already changing–no matter what we might be doing about them?
- What are our competitors’ current and future strategies? Where will they be relative to us in the next quarter or the next year?
- What does my organization do well right now? What have we always done better than anybody?
- What can we do better by finding new partners or collaborators, or by considering mergers and acquisitions?
This is a useful checklist all the time, of course, but I try to keep it front and center during periods of rapid change. If change is embedded in everything you do already, then adapting to a period of turmoil won’t seem like such a foreign concept. In my experience, that takes a culture of experimentation and responsibility. When things are going well, innovation tends to offer incremental benefits, but when circumstances demand making big shifts quickly, you need everyone to know it’s incumbent on them to take risks, and that they have the liberty to do so.
You may not know what’s coming next, but the thing about uncertainty is that it’s never an unfamiliar feeling. There was an earlier moment where you felt just as uncertain, but you somehow made it through. For me, anyway, the key isn’t just to wait it out; it’s what you do–together–that makes all the difference.