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Ben Morton

Leadership Mentor | Performance Coach | Keynote Speaker

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Leadership in a VUCA World


Ben Morton of TwentyOne leadership tells us about the VUCA principle in leadership.

The last five years have unquestionably been difficult times for business and the public. In a short space of time we have witnessed the banking crisis, phone hacking and MPs expenses scandals and the demise of many familiar high street names such as Woolworths, to name just one. All of these things have brought leadership into sharp focus once again and led us to ask many questions. Two of the most common questions I have heard are 'Can we trust our leaders?' and 'Are our leaders equipped to lead us through these times?’

Linked to these questions are a couple of phrases or buzzwords that I have heard more and more lately; Innovation and VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). It is VUCA that particularly interests me. From all of the recent references to VUCA you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a new phenomenon and that we suddenly need a whole new raft of leadership skills. Well, here’s the thing, it’s not actually a new phenomenon. The term VUCA derives from military vocabulary and they have been training their leaders to operate in this world for many, many years. In fact, it’s one of the cornerstones of military leadership. Here are some of my favourite techniques, taken from the military, that you can use to help you be an effective business leader whilst operating in a VUCA world.

Provide stability

A leader’s role is to create stability and an air of calm – these tools can help by ensuring that teams are not reliant on particular individuals:

  • Train your team to understand and be able to carry out other people's jobs
  • Don’t allow a job description document to constrain what your people do – give them freedom to act
  • Recruit for flexibility, intellect and team ‘fit’ – not just skills in a narrow job role.

Provide clarity

In times of uncertainty it is important for leaders to communicate and provide clarity where they can:

  • Ensure that everyone in your team or organisation fully understands the vision or end goal as opposed to just their individual task. This means that if the situation changes, they still know what the team or organisation is ultimately trying to achieve.
  • Tell people what they need to achieve – not how to achieve it.

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." - General George Patton 

These two points will empower your people to act and handle change quickly with the end goal still in mind. The military call this ‘Mission Command’.


It is easy to stop communicating when under pressure but the impact on the team can be huge:

  • Communicate regularly and build it into your processes.
  • When teams are under pressure individuals will often retreat inwards and team meetings stop taking place - this is the worst thing that can happen in difficult times.
  • Establish a routine for team meetings and communications and make them sacrosanct. This gives you confidence that the team know what is happening and it gives the team confidence in you and the plan.

Communicate early

The military have the concept of a ‘Warning Order’ which tells subordinates early on what little information is available about forthcoming operations. This allows for concurrent activity and provides a faster response time to challenges. Critics will say, ‘But this could waste time if people start working on the wrong things.’ Not so if you have provided clarity and everybody understands the end goal.

Plan for the risks

The military have a great phrase - 'no plan survives contact with the enemy'.  So what can we learn from this?

  • Consider the ‘threats’, ‘risks' and ‘what if’s’ that may affect your plan – create a simple 'issues and risks' register
  • Once you have considered the risks – plan for them. Don’t just have a plan B, have a plan C as well
  • Communicate the risks and plans.  It will allow people to act quickly when things change and once again, it gives them confidence.

Ben Morton began his career in the British Army and trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Ben completed two operational tours of Iraq, initially as a Platoon Commander and again as an Operations Officer leading 180 soldiers before resigning his Commission as a Captain in 2006. He is now an international team development consultant and coach at TwentyOne Leadership whose clients range from small and solo business owners to FTSE 100 companies and international brands. He is a Chartered Member of the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) with approaching two decades of experience in leadership, learning and management

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Author Profile Picture
Ben Morton

Leadership Mentor | Performance Coach | Keynote Speaker

Read more from Ben Morton

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