Though the term VUCA was first coined in the 1980s, it has never felt more relevant than it does today. Everything from the pace of technological change to climate anxiety can make us feel like there’s a looming crisis just around the corner. Of course, sometimes there really is a crisis, whether it’s facing your company, your sector or all of us.
But being a good leader means learning not only to survive crises, but to thrive in spite of them. As the Harvard Business Review recently noted, it’s not enough just to manage the response to a crisis, or put out fires as you spot them. You need to lead through it, working out where your company will land once the situation has calmed down, and showing everyone how to get there.
Of course, though everything feels high stakes at the moment, we’ve always lived in a constantly changing environment. The 1990s self-help classic Who Moved My Cheese? told a generation to keep their eyes open for better opportunities, rather than expecting comfortable stability throughout their careers. And though the book feels pretty dated today, this central idea is still true – we need to be adaptable and predict change, so as not to let crises knock us out.
Build sound structures and safety nets
It’s almost impossible to come through a crisis well if you haven’t prepared for it in the good times. You need to make sure your company is as resilient as possible – that everyone knows how to work remotely if needed, that there are back-ups of all your important data, that employees feel protected in the case of sudden job uncertainty. Without this, you’ll have to build your response to a crisis from the ground up, and frankly, you may not have time for that.
Let people do their jobs
Once you’ve built a structure which is resilient and flexible, you need to trust that it will work. Don’t micromanage everything and anxiously demand approval over every decision– no one will thank you for that, including yourself! If equipment needs to be sent to employees’ homes, let the tech and facilities teams decide how to do that. If people have questions about their specific projects, let their line managers respond.
Keep the goal in sight
The waters may be turbulent, but as a leader it’s your job to chart a course through them. You need to figure out where your company might find itself once the storm has passed, and find the smoothest routes to the best outcomes. Listen to experts, take good advice, and keep a wide view. It’s also vital to communicate your goals clearly – you’re all in the same boat, so you need to be aiming in the same direction.
Use your emotional intelligence
Don’t just encourage optimism – give people a reason to feel optimistic. That doesn’t mean you need to promise the moon. In fact, avoid that at all costs! Instead, be realistic but hopeful, and allay people’s fears about their security wherever you can. People will voice their fears, if not to you then to each other, and you need to listen and respond compassionately – even if hearing the same worry for the fifth time today wasn’t on your to-do list. Never forget that you work with people, and we’re all motivated by very human needs.
Accept that you can’t win everything
When the crisis has passed and the dust has settled, you may find that you missed the mark on a few things. This can be tough to deal with, but even more than usual, it’s important to remember that no one’s perfect. Just be sure to learn from the mistakes, and use them to build even stronger structures to face future crises.