We are living in challenging times. What does it mean for leadership development?

We are currently living in a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) world, but how do these challenging times affect leadership development? Dr Joanne James explores this topic in her latest thought leadership article.

Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate emergency, international conflicts. Just a few of the matters currently testing humankind. The acronym VUCA certainly sums up our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. How can we thrive in such challenging times?

For some time now, leadership development programmes have encouraged us to develop our self-awareness but why is this so critical for our VUCA world? Whatever our professional sphere, we are likely to be called upon to respond to demanding situations, where we must collaborate with others to find solutions to the emerging challenges.

Whilst the future is unpredictable, what is certain is that we cannot always rely on tried and tested approaches. To cope with uncertainty, we must develop flexibility and adaptability in our thinking.

The first step is awareness.

Self-awareness leads to flexibility

Self-awareness could mean:

  • recognising how we come across to others so we can work better with diverse groups of people;
  • developing clarity about our values so we have a moral compass to guide us when there is no policy for the new situation;
  • challenging our assumptions when we are feeling stuck, so we open the possibility to see a situation differently and consider a variety of options.

In our rapidly changing world, these abilities to develop flexible thinking allows us to adapt and respond to uncertainty.

Taking the idea of awareness further, by developing critical awareness, we are encouraged to challenge the world around us and our place within it. Humans are sense-making beings and seek to understand and interpret what is going on. We make sense through what we can hear, touch, taste, smell and feel. We are emotionally and physiologically attuned to the world around us.

However, we are so bombarded with information and embedded in dominant experiences of our workplace, our professional standards or our social culture, we absorb ideas almost unconsciously. We can lose track of where our influences come from. These things become fixed and unchallenged, or we assume we ‘should’ adopt the rules set out in our context.

Knowing what informs our practice, helps us to question it and to continually review if our approaches are fit for purpose. Tuning in to all our sources of data – including the feelings and the senses - helps us to develop a rounded appraisal of a situation beyond the numbers or logical analysis alone.

Why is critical awareness essential for leadership for the future?

The world of work is changing. It is:

  • adopting digital innovations;
  • developing sustainable approaches that preserve the world’s resources;
  • combining technologies from across discipline boundaries or creating diverse teams in hybrid working.

"Leadership will emerge where people can connect and collaborate to effect creative change."

Dr Joanne James, Director of Executive Education

Critical awareness helps leaders to recognise where the dominant culture gets in the way of people working effectively together and questions the ‘shoulds’ of a situation. Self-awareness enables us to tap into our response to this culture, to recognise our own bias, our uncertainty or vulnerability if the old order is shifting. If we are to thrive in uncertain times, we must learn to develop adaptable thinking approaches and that means knowing where that thinking comes from.

So, tune in to your self-knowledge, the senses, the feelings, and the ‘shoulds’ that surround you and create a dialogue with others to find a way forwards in the most VUCA of circumstances.

Critical thinking for effective professional practice, whether you call yourself a leader or not, is central to all of the Executive Education programmes at Newcastle University Business School.

Find out more about their programmes for senior leaders and managers


About the author

Dr Joanne James is Director of Executive Education at Newcastle University Business School. Joanne's research centres on coaching and leadership and she is particularly interested in the professional development journey that we all participate in as we navigate our professional lives.

Joanne is responsible for the development and delivery of a suite of part-time, work-based Executive Education programmes:

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