Today’s educational world can be appropriately described as a VUCA world, a term coined at the U.S. Military War College, which means Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting 'infodemic' accurately synchronises with all of the four characteristics of VUCA and the turbulence it has generated seems to be something that is here to stay. Now, the war in Ukraine is causing more uncertainty.
Schools are certainly VUCA environments so what does that mean for school leaders?
The challenges for school leaders have been enormous as a VUCA environment can:
- Destabilise pupils and staff and impact their wellbeing
- Drain motivation
- Disrupt career moves
- Make constant retraining and reshaping essential
- Increase the chances of making bad decisions
- Paralyse decision-making processes
- Jeopardise long-term projects, developments and innovations
- Damage culture and community
The COVID-19 pandemic has become a defining disruption impacting leaders in schools across the globe.
But there is an antidote to the VUCA world.
VUCA leadership framework
Bob Johansen (2013) developed an effective leadership framework as a “VUCA counterweight” he called VUCA PRIME.
He proposes that the best VUCA leaders are characterised by:
He says that leaders cannot stay frightened but learn how to engage with the confusion and fear.
This is the leadership skill Johansen describes as 'dilemma flipping' and involves taking the VUCA world and changing it from a threatening thing to a world laden with opportunities.
Flipping the VUCA narrative is something many leaders have successfully done by being more flexible and resilient, especially in the way they embraced technology and hybrid learning.
VUCA is now about 'thrival' rather than just survival. VUCA leaders do this as follows:
1. Counter volatility with vision
Accept and embrace change as a constant, unpredictable feature of your school environment rather than trying to resist it.
Create strong objectives and values and develop a clear, shared vision of the future. Make sure that staff are set flexible goals that can be amended when necessary so they can navigate unsettled, unfamiliar situations, and react quickly to changes.
2. Meet uncertainty with understanding
Stop, look and listen so you can understand and develop new ways of thinking and act in response to VUCA's elements.
Review and evaluate by considering what has gone well (the Covid-keepers) in the last 2 years, what came as a surprise, and what you could do differently next time.
Simulate and experiment with situations so that you can explore how they might play out, and how you might react to them in the future. Scenario planning, crisis planning and role playing are useful ways to generate foresight and prepare plans of attack.
3. React to complexity with clarity
Communicate clearly with your staff. In complex situations, clearly expressed communications help them to understand the school's direction.
VUCA situations are often too complicated for one person to handle so build teams that can work effectively in a fast-paced, unpredictable environment. Develop a collaborative environment, and work hard to build consensus. Encourage debate, dissent and participation from everyone.
4. Fight ambiguity with agility
Promote flexibility, adaptability and agility. Plan ahead, but build in contingency time and be prepared to alter your plans as events unfold.
Encourage staff to think and work outside of their usual functional areas, to increase their knowledge and experience. Job rotation and cross training can be excellent ways to improve team agility.
Meet VUCA head-on with an ideas-culture that is ‘Vibrant, Unreal, Crazy and Astounding’.
The agile model
In volatile times, key to being a VUCA leader is leadership agility. This is the capability of a leader to dynamically sense and respond to changes in their environment with actions that are focused, fast and flexible.
Those with leadership agility learn faster from experience than others and are more adaptable, comfortable and calmer when facing difficulties.
Horney (2022) asks that just as some of us might have a yearly medical examination to test our fitness, why not have an annual leadership fitness test?
He says that the key ingredient separating good leaders from the best leaders is Leadership Agility Fitness which demands competence in five areas:
- Anticipate change – identifies future patterns and trends that would impact goal achievement
- Generate confidence – creates a culture of confidence and engagement of all stakeholders into effective and collaborative teams
- Initiate action – provide the fuel and the systems to make things happen proactively and responsively at all levels of the organisation
- Liberate thinking – create the climate and conditions for fresh solutions by empowering, encouraging and teaching others to be innovative
- Evaluate results – keeping the focus and managing the knowledge to learn and improve from actions
In a similar way, Antonacopoulou (2018) argues that in a new learning organisation, leaders ought to acknowledge and embrace their vulnerability to avoid being surprised. They should be unnerved by ambiguity and the unknown and even feel personally challenged and enticed to thrive in spite of it. Moreover, they should show more candour and remain open to experience awakening.
Radical changes brought about by COVID-19 are calling for a new leadership style. Next gen leaders adopting the characteristics of VUCA leadership will create more purpose-driven, innovative and connected school teams.
40 key traits of VUCA leaders
Summarising the key traits of next-gen VUCA leaders, we can say they share 40 key traits:
- Build vision, understanding, clarity and agility
- Proactively listen
- Lead by example
- Have strong self-belief coupled with humanity and humility
- Are not afraid to show vulnerability
- Have a clarity of vision and make sure everyone is on the same page
- Take pride in what they do
- Take calculated risks
- Remember to be flexible
- Move, change and evolve a school
- They are focused
- Lead with transparency
- Have a strong focus on priorities
- Think strategically
- Are ambiguity tolerant
- Create social safety and a human-centred environment where everyone is valued
- Are committed to making a difference
- Drive, inspire and embrace change and continuous improvement
- Act with boldness
- Create empowered and motivated teams
- Focus on developing people
- Inspire their school community
- Are creative thinkers with a deep sense of purpose
- Show a propensity and ability to move into action and make decisions
- Actively engage diverse stakeholders, influencing and studying them simultaneously
- They “seek pain to learn”
- Keep a dynamic mindset
- Think entrepreneurially
- Maintain resilience
- They question the status quo
- Are comfortable being uncomfortable
- Are curious
- Refrain from micro-managing
- Stimulates team intelligence
- Builds a culture of diversity and inclusivity
- They actively migrate towards challenges
- They thrive off solving difficult problems
- Effectively manage frequent disruption
- Demonstrate accountability
For schools to thrive and to continue succeeding, VUCA leaders must be able to handle any curve ball thrown their way.
Perhaps therefore it is practical wisdom mixed with agility which appear to be of the utmost importance in order to cope with VUCA and everything it throws at a school.
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About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is Eteach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.