• Leadership

Leading through Uncertainty

Insights on VUCA in light of the Brexit vote


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IEDP reports on a stimulating one-day seminar at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School:

One participant said that Brexit was low down on the list of issues causing uncertainty in her organization. For others it resonated more. The popularity of this event however demonstrated that uncertainty is something most managers face in their organizations and that Brexit is, if nothing else, a reason for facing up to dealing with uncertainty.

The list of issues causing uncertainty includes: technology driven disruption, from Uber type business models to the 'Internet of Things'; economic volatility with the fall in oil prices and the ongoing shadow of the 2008 financial crisis; and political instability exemplified by the rise of a more extreme politics from both the left and the right and by the Brexit vote.

In a business context uncertainty is nothing new, but the current wave comes at a time when business has become increasingly complex. Opening his presentation James Moncrieff offered a simple graph tracing the relationship between uncertainty and complexity: at the lower (less complex/uncertain) end leadership focus is on ‘navigation’ – moving through known scenarios where data and experience lead the way. Higher up the graph leaders face complex problems where there are no obvious answers and the focus needs to be on ‘exploration’, intuition and constant learning.

Exploration done well should follow a path from sensing signals of change, through awareness, to motivation and mobilisation into action. Critical to sensing is the need for open channels of information particularly from customer facing colleagues and from external sources, collaboration and even open networks and innovation.

To take decisive action as a result of exploration leaders need to exercise judgement. Moncrieff quoted an Ashridge colleague: ‘Judgement is what we do when the answer is not implicit in the data’ (Narendra Laljani, 2009), and offered six judgement skills: Noticing – picking up the signals, Sense-making – what it means for us, Contextual Mastery, Intuition, Values, and Courage.


In a session, introduced by Jim Cookson, participants dived into the implications of Brexit itself, looking in separate groups at five Brexit themes: Uncertainty, Leadership, Talent and Mobility, Opportunities, and Legacy. A participant from the financial services sector was deeply worried that Britain could be excluded from the EU banking passport system, for others the concern was more about the North/South split and the societal tensions that the referendum had revealed, and many expressed a dissatisfaction with the process – a profound decision taken on the basis of little verifiable data by an electorate not sure precisely what it was voting about or for.


Victoria Harrison-Mirauer opened the afternoon session by introducing three themes around leading innovation in uncertain times:

Opportunism and Optimism: The characteristics of innovators: This theme, around innovators’ DNA, looked at these skills: Observing; Questioning; Networking (for Ideas); Experimenting; and Associating i.e. bringing together diverse perspectives to create an “exponential increase in ideas.” – Importantly these are all skills that can benefit from practice.

Taking a ‘Total View’ of innovation: This is about how the ‘organization’ as an innovation eco system should embrace three key areas for innovation:

  • Core – optimising existing products and customers
  • Adjacent – expanding from the existing business
  • Transformational – seeking breakthroughs and markets that are yet to exist.

Leadership and environments conducive to innovation: This theme was introduced as “Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do!” Organizations need to create a culture that embraces ambiguity, is agile in its thinking, decentralises experimenting, tolerates failure and balances freedom and direction.


In the final session Sharon Olivier considered the team leadership aspect of leading through uncertainty. She said the need for ‘engagement’ is key. To nurture the engagement that leads team members to make ‘discretionary effort’ leaders need leadership intelligence. The more uncertain the times the more we need an engaged workforce and the more critical leadership is – leading the self, leading people, and leading the organization.

To be effective, leaders need to gain insight into their own unconscious needs and the motivational ‘hot buttons’ that trigger their responses and those of their people, and they need to understand the context of their organization’s culture. For example, Sharon introduced the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and how this links to Organizational Cultures ‘consciousness’.

She also explained the role of ego and eco intelligence in leadership:

Ego intelligence: Results in strong controlling leadership. This can be usefully applied when 'doing' is the priority and in times of crisis or when objectives are clearly defined and outcomes predictable and easily measured. But it can stifle collaborative effort and creativity.

Eco intelligence: Supports collaborative environments and is most needed when situations are complex, volatile and uncertain and there are no obvious clear answers. It can however result in an element of chaos which some will find disengaging.

Finally, Olivier spoke of a third intelligence Intuition/Wisdom: In this case a sense of a higher purpose and leadership with meaning and discernment are prioritised. Although a purpose driven business is desirable it is possible to have too much of this idealistic intelligence.

These intelligences all have their place. The complete leader needs to balance the three and to find this balance leaders should adopt five transformational leadership practices: Become purpose driven – Create space for dialogue – Tap into intrinsic motivation – Be self-organized and motivated – Create an agile learning culture.

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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