(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

Henley Leadership Group Blog

Leading in the Face of Uncertainty And Volatility


Here's how leaders can stay calm and grounded in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world.

I first heard the term “VUCA World” 15 years ago at a conference for learning providers. Futurist Bob Johansen was describing the future he saw coming at us, suggesting that maybe we ought to prepare for it. 

We didn’t. 

A concept introduced by the U.S. Army War College in 1987, VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous. As Johansen brought it into our context during that presentation, it sounded ominous. A few in the audience groaned. What would it mean to live and lead in a VUCA world? What skills and abilities would serve rather than sever? And how fast would this VUCA world make it to our door, we wondered. 

It’s here.

And leading in the face of volatility, uncertainty, chaos and ambiguity remains the central challenge of our age. 

The best leaders I’ve worked with are unflappable in the face of ambiguity and chaos. As David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work,” says, “They can observe their own thinking, and thus can change how they think. These people have better cognitive control and thus can access a quieter mind on demand.” 

They keep their feet on the ground while still opening their hearts and minds toward whatever circumstances are unfolding before them. They recover quickly from breakdowns. They don’t let their mood dominate the day. They are more curious than certain. And even though they very much personally care, they don’t seem to take difficulties personally. 

To help leaders ground themselves in the face of uncertainty, Rock advises engaging “the director,” which he explains is “a metaphor for the part of your awareness that can stand outside of experience. This director can watch the show that is your life, make decisions about how your brain will respond, and even sometimes alter the script.”

Choose to Engage Your Executive Director 

Here are three things you can do right away to regain calm no matter what’s going on around you:

1.    Label what’s happening. To move out of the automatic emotional state and instead engage the neocortex—the rational, thinking part of the brain—follow the mantra “name it to tame it.”

Labeling—either verbally or in writing/journaling —can create calm in your body and mind, and from this calmer state, you will be able to see more opportunity, solutions, and paths forward. In his book “Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation,” Daniel Siegel explains, “Writing in a journal activates the narrator function of our minds. Studies have suggested that simply writing down our account of a challenging experience can lower physiological reactivity and increase our sense of well-being.” 

Task yourself with labeling or naming your emotions throughout your day, telling yourself the truth as you experience it: “anxious,” “uncertain,” “bored,” “frustrated,” “disappointed.” 

2.    Shift your perspective: The best leaders I’ve coached can look at circumstances through a variety of lenses, shifting perspectives with ease. That enables them to keep an open mind and be influenced by those who hold a different perspective. They are curious, open learners. They’re willing to enter the uncomfortable place of not knowing. 

Challenge your perspective by questioning the story you have been telling yourself about a situation and then making up a new, more empowering story. Or, if you are brave, challenge your perspective by inviting others into conversation. Tell them how you are seeing things and ask them to shoot holes in your thinking. Invite dissent. 

3. Take a deep breath: Focus on your breathing, your thoughts, your needs, your well-being. In other words, put on your own mask first before helping another. This practice of taking a deep breath (or two or three) can bring your mind into a calmer state, where creativity, compassion and curiosity can be brought back online. It’s how you begin a centering practice that can support you and return you from insanity back to reality. 

The deep breath allows you to engage the director and observe yourself, which is known as self-awareness or mindfulness. This is also sometimes referred to as metacognition, which means thinking about your thinking, or meta-awareness, which means awareness of your awareness. The point is, you slow down, pay attention and check in with yourself. You stop directing your attention outward to the chaos or uncertainty around you. 

It's easy to be swept away by the high-speed disasters of the day. The news cycle alone can trigger reactive states that lead you into a sense of hopelessness. But leadership is none of this. It is the creation of a future, the stilling of despair. Be a leader in the VUCA world. We need you.

Previously published on Forbes