Written by
Ian C Woodward
INSEAD

Published
04 May 2018

Develop insight in a D-VUCAD world

04 May 2018 • by Ian C Woodward

We are now well beyond a VUCA world – characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – and must add two Ds to the acronym to reflect the broader context of the journey ahead. Everyone’s leadership journey will now take place in the ‘D-VUCAD’ environment.

At the front, overshadowing everything, is disruption (whether in the form of technology, social change, industry reconfiguration or the like). We continue to experience volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, but must add to this the reality of diversity (including gender balance, plus cross-cultural and intergenerational diversity).

In the D-VUCAD world, your personal leadership journey will include more frequent pathway changes, all of which you should navigate consciously.

Context matters

A key finding of my research on leadership development is that many leaders do not think consciously and actively enough about the new pathways they embark on when they make leadership or career changes. They re-use the same skills, capabilities and approaches, even when these do not match the new situation.

Take the example of ‘John Little’, a very senior operating executive and an exceptional leader in crisis situations. He would frequently and successfully head crisis project teams in his firm and, in such situations, he appropriately used an authoritative leadership style. He was clear, precise and energising, directing the people in his team in delivering the solution.

John was eventually promoted to lead a business unit responsible for operations in another country. This was a steady-state business with growth opportunities. He was entering a very different pathway, but he didn’t consciously think about it, continuing to use the same directive leadership approach that had made him successful in the past. Twelve months later, he received some damning performance feedback from his people: “You are a micromanaging, authoritarian dictator who never listens, consults or inspires others,” they said. His crisis style didn’t suit his new pathway.

John accepted the feedback and adjusted his approach. He garnered a profound insight into leadership effectiveness: in the leadership journey, context really matters. He became more consciously aware of himself, of other people and of the context and purpose of his leadership.

Leaders with ‘insightful awareness’ understand their strengths and talents, as well as their probable weaknesses in any given context. They comprehend what will drive or block them at different points in their leadership journey and set themselves development objectives and priorities accordingly. This keeps their ‘personal leadership agenda’ dynamic – consciously re-assessed in light of current and future situations – and they commit to making focused and dedicated changes, with reflection, practice, support and feedback. They confront hard questions such as “am I the right leader for this pathway?” and “why am I doing what I’m doing on this pathway?”

The six As

In the D-VUCAD world, building on six As (awareness; aspiration; authenticity; acumen; approaches; altitudes – see box, right) allows insightful leaders to harness the specific capabilities their teams, their organisations, their context and they, themselves, need.

These capabilities might include a combination of competitiveness (for example, goal setting and technical skills); creativity (such as innovation and curiosity); collaboration (teaming and engagement); control (planning and risk mitigation); cognitions (using different kinds of thinking capacities and multiple perspectives); and effective communication (intrapersonal, interpersonal, group and public).

Capabilities are not emphasised blindly. Insightfully aware leaders emphasise the capabilities required to achieve specific strategic or operational outcomes at the time or in the future. This is how they succeed on the pathway. For example, a leader in a critical operations role might emphasise control capabilities such as implementation and risk management. Meanwhile, a leader developing innovative products or services might emphasise more creative capabilities such as brainstorming or ideation.

A personal journey

Our unconscious is filled with drivers and blockers. The key is to reflect on our leadership consciously, and within context. Every leader’s journey is personal – with opportunities to seize and problems to face. Assess your passions, motivations, talents and skills. Match these to the pathways ahead and adjust where needed. Always be ‘insightfully aware’ as you challenge yourself to be the best leader you can be in the journey stages that you are sharing with others. 

Six As for insightfully aware leadership

AWARENESS – achieving profound awareness of self, others, context and purpose as a leadership grounding point, backed with a commitment to a development agenda or action plan

ASPIRATION – setting a long-term vision to be the best leader you can be, and connecting this to your short-term context and leadership development agenda, reflection, coaching and feedback

AUTHENTICITY – developing and challenging yourself using clear self-leadership with an understanding of your personal attributes, emotional and other intelligences, your role modelling and engagement with others

ACUMEN – building personal and team capacity for leadership judgement, agility and decision making about business and people matters, as well as leveraging team diversity and talents

APPROACHES – adopting conscious leadership approaches that match organisational, team and personal capabilities in context to needs

ALTITUDES – ‘flying’ at three distinct leadership altitudes: 50,000 feet (vision, strategic, external and organisational); 50 feet (execution, operational, teams and stakeholders); and 5 feet (self and very close personal relations with others). Thinking, acting and communicating seamlessly up and down, without getting trapped at any one altitude.

INSEAD