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Thriving in a VUCA World: Strategies for Business Leaders

Xenia Wickett - Wickett Advisory
Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

The world today is more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous than ever before. The term VUCA, borrowed from the military, encapsulates this reality perfectly. As business leaders, understanding and navigating these challenges is essential for sustainable success.


Drawing on my experiences from two stints in the White House and my work as an executive coach, I provide a framework for thinking about global volatility and suggest actionable strategies to manage and capitalize on it.


The Current Global Landscape


To frame this discussion, consider the world in three interconnected layers, akin to the body - the skeleton, the systems within it, and the specific organs and limbs.


The Skeleton: The Global Architecture


The skeleton represents the foundational architecture of the global order, established post-World War II. This structure, comprising institutions like the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, and the geopolitical prominence and leadership of the US, China, and Europe, has provided a framework for international cooperation and economic stability, and thus some predictability. However, today, we observe significant cracks driven by the following:


-         America’s Internal Focus: The United States, traditionally seen as the global leader, is increasingly inwardly focused. The upcoming elections and the current political divisions creates volatility and reduces the country's ability to provide consistent international leadership.

-         China's Economic Slowdown: A strong global engine through recent economic crises (eg: the 2007-9 financial crisis, Covid), China is now grappling with slower growth and structural economic challenges. It is having to look outwards for growth and finding pushback. More broadly, its external engagement is strictly on its own terms, adding to global tensions.

-         US-China Tensions: Rising conflict between the US and China, and increasingly between China and the broader West, is a significant source of global instability and is a principal cause of the move from globalisation to regionalisation (see Shannon O’Neil’s writing for more on this).

-         Weakening International Institutions: Bodies like the UN and the IMF face crises of legitimacy and efficacy, struggling with bureaucratic inertia and leadership conflicts.

-         Shifting Attitudes towards Democracy and Authoritarianism: The perception of democratic decline and the failure of capitalism to deliver to broader society, is affecting attitudes, changing expectations around the role of business, and generating unpredictability.


This weakening global architecture no longer provides the stable, predictable environment it once did.


The Systems in Flux


Several key systems are also in flux, contributing to global volatility:


-         Economics: Global economic growth drivers are uncertain, with regionalization and changing supply chains altering traditional economic patterns.

-         Energy: The rise of renewable energy sources is reshaping global power dynamics and dependencies, fostering greater resilience but also new complexities.

-         Climate Change: Increasingly volatile weather patterns and natural disasters, exacerbated by climate change, disrupt economies and communities worldwide.

-         Demographics: Changing demographics is causing power to shift, with aging and shrinking populations in much of Europe, China and to a lesser extent the US, and youthful, burgeoning populations in Africa and the Middle East. This is leading to changes in economic and political power balances.

-         Technology: Technological advancements, while driving progress, also introduce risks and uncertainties. The rapid proliferation of artificial intelligence, automation, and digital connectivity revolutionizes industries but raises concerns about data privacy, cybersecurity, and the digital divide.


The Organs and Limbs: Localized Crises


Individual crises, such as conflicts and natural disasters, further stress the global system:


-         Ukraine War: Ongoing conflict in Ukraine continues to destabilize the region and provides a proxy battleground for some of the broader global tensions to play out. It is also having implications on a number of the circular systems including food and energy.

-         Conflict in Gaza: The disaster playing out in Gaza has ramifications that go far beyond its borders, implicating the wider Middle East, the US and Europe in particular. It will also have resonance for any region looking for independence.

-         Humanitarian Crises: Countries like Sudan, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Myanmar face severe humanitarian challenges.

-         Extreme Weather Events: Natural disasters from Afghanistan to Brazil, the UAE, Kenya, China, and India disrupt local lives and economies.


These localized crises, while individually manageable, collectively strain the global system's capacity to respond effectively.


What To Do About It: Lessons in Finding and Creating Windows of Opportunity


From my time in the White House, both post-9/11 in the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and later at the National Security Council (NSC), I learned the critical importance of distinguishing between reactive and proactive strategies. Both have their place.


Amidst the chaos after the events of September 11, 2001, it was crucial to discern what truly mattered – the signal – and respond to that, shutting out the wider (often louder) noise. Despite the barrage of things flying at you, it was an unusually proactive time, building a new homeland security.


At the NSC, much of the work involved responding to events, maintaining policy coherence, and nudging teams towards strategic objectives; it was a much more reactive period. But in doing this work, one could look for windows of opportunity that these situations caused and, in so doing, move your objectives forward.


I learned that success often lies as much in the "how" as in the "what." Framing the narrative, building stakeholder support, is key to achieving objectives.


As an executive coach, I’ve come to apply these lessons to individuals as well as organizational contexts. While we may not control events, we can control our responses, manage our internal narratives, and thus influence outcomes. This perspective is crucial in today's VUCA world.


Practical Strategies for Business Leaders


To thrive amidst volatility, business leaders must embrace a forward leaning mindset. Here are some key strategies:


1.       Establish Risk Tolerance: Define your organization's and your leadership’s appetite for risk and align your strategies accordingly.

2.      Flexibility and Adaptability: Embrace the adaptability of the willow tree rather than the rigidity of the oak. Flexibility is crucial in navigating change.

3.      Seek External Perspectives: Invite diverse voices to challenge assumptions and provide fresh insights.

4.      Signal vs. Noise: Discern meaningful signals amidst the noise of uncertainty to make informed decisions.

5.      Scenario Planning: Anticipate multiple futures and stress-test assumptions to prepare for various outcomes.

6.      Integration: Embed risk management into everyday operations to enable early warnings and agile responses.

7.      Iterate: Continuously refine strategies based on emerging insights and changing conditions.




In conclusion, the key to success in a VUCA world is not to control it but to ride the wave. Businesses that thrive are those that adapt, identify opportunities amidst chaos, and remain resilient. Reflect on your assumptions, identify what you can control or influence, and embrace the dynamic nature of our world. Every challenge presents an opportunity if we approach it with the right mindset and strategy.


Let’s navigate this storm together, armed with clarity, adaptability, and a shared commitment to excellence.

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