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Successful Leadership Behaviours when Change is a Constant

When working in a variety of organisations and spending time with friends and colleagues I often hear it said that change and uncertainty is the only constant in our lives.  This environment has been described through the acronym ‘VUCA’ which became commonly used as a term following the terrorist attacks of 11 September.  It represents volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.  In business we experienced this environment with the financial crisis of 2008 when well used and established business models quickly became obsolete in the volatile environment that we found ourselves in.  Environmentally we have experienced this with global events for example the earthquake in Nepal and more locally floods in Cumbria and York.  Elland Bridge has been under repair since the Boxing Day floods and on a more positive note we saw Yorkshire unite when supporting the Tour de Yorkshire.  Technically we are seeing developments at an increasing pace and socially our population is ageing.  We are encouraged to take more responsibility for our environmental footprint for example by avoiding business trips and be more inclusive of others in our approaches by adjusting the workplace and our way of working for colleagues with diverse needs.  Most recently we have experienced the decision to leave the EU and the continuing uncertainty of what this will mean. So if we recognise that we live in the VUCA world, how then do we identify and develop leaders that will rise to the new challenges that are presented?  The first step is to identify through analysis what skills your organisation needs now and in the future, design a process that will effectively identify these in selection and use the most effective approaches to develop them fully in the individual.  These skills and approaches will be specific to each organisation and individual, however there are common trends identified across organisations.  For example research with executives whose careers stalled found that typically they don’t relate well to others, are self-centred, don’t inspire or build talent, are too narrow and don’t deliver results.  If you’ve worked with any leaders with these characteristics, you may know from experience how damaging this can be to morale and ultimately to productivity. In the future we need leaders that have the abilities to perform in these areas that have been found to be lacking. To understand the VUCA world more fully we can explore the meanings of the terms further.  Volatile means that change does not happen in a predictable pattern and is much more frequent.  Uncertain means that experiences from the past are not necessarily good predictors of the future which makes forecasting difficult and decision making a challenge.  Complexity of the issues makes it difficult to identify causes and problems.  Ambiguity makes it difficult to understand why things are happening.    Working in a psychology business we help adults to understand themselves and others who are often volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous so we can help them to respond to change more positively despite the environmental difficulties that aren’t in their control. We have effective local leaders with the ability to adapt but this is increasingly difficult with the increasing speed of the change.  Successful leaders in the future need to be agile and flexible with increased levels of self-awareness.  They need knowledge of the business beyond their functional area so that they have the information to make decisions and well developed critical thinking skills.  To make the best use of these skills our leaders need the ability to learn and to quickly apply their learnings to new situations.  One way organisations can recruit leaders with these skills is by using selection tools that are known to be good predictors of future performance, for example structured interviews combined with psychometrics and well-designed assessment centres. These new skills of leadership are adaptive skills which require a move away from the traditional development methods of on the job training, mentoring for leadership development and technical skills training courses. Development for successful leaders means moving toward an approach that provides an initial in depth psychological assessment to increase their levels of self-awareness.  This development work can then progress through work based scenarios in cross functional teams and application in real work situations.  These interventions can be measured through improvements in the business for example new products, improved processes which reduce costs and an increase in collaborative working.  Successful leaders provide solutions to existing problems within the business as they are seen as an opportunity. To develop successful leaders we need to accept that there is likely to be constant change and uncertainty for the global and local environments – including your organisation.  More importantly we then need to recognise that we need to help our leaders to develop new skills in different ways to provide them with the ability to deal with the speed and complexity of the change.  A great starting point for this is to consider whether your existing selection and development practices are recruiting and developing leaders who possess the skills needed to steer your organisation safely through times of increasing uncertainty and change. Gill Gowland CPsychol is Principal Psychologist at The Kade Consultancy.  She has experience of working with leaders in sectors such as finance, energy and education across the globe.  Gill has been instrumental in developing Kade’s up to date approaches including our new website and developing our team of experienced psychologists. Have a look at our free change tool at: