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Leading change in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world

Wednesday October 17 2018

Nation Leadership Forum

Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia (left), Nairobi County's Lands executive Charles Kerich (centre) and Architectural Association of Kenya President Emma Miloyo lead discussions during the Nation Leadership Forum at the University of Nairobi on September 17, 2018. Effective leadership explains both the “what” and the “why” to their teams and to external stakeholders. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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We live in a VUCA world. That is, a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

In this context, we need a different kind of leadership — a versatile, adaptive leadership that embraces the challenges and opportunities that come with relentless change. A versatile leadership calls for a constant balance between strategic and operational leadership on the one axis and forceful but enabling leadership on the other.


To achieve that balance, we must first cast off some myths about leadership. We do not, for example, lead alone, and nor are we leaders because of a title or a position. Leadership, in other words, isn’t about authority. It’s also not about delegating all the work to a few hard-working souls while everybody else warily watches, hoping that The Boss doesn’t catch their eye.

Leadership is about influence. And in this VUCA world, that influence comes through robust stakeholder management, collaboration and the destruction of silos. That is the only way to guide our organisations through complex strategic threats that can take years to navigate.


All of these skills require consistent, clear, honest and wise communication. In years past, leaders considered communication a necessary evil, an ancillary skill. That is no longer true. Today, effective communication and effective leadership go hand in hand.

Effective leadership explains both the “what” and the “why” to their teams and to external stakeholders. In this world of instant, non-stop information, strong leadership means being proactive about key developments, about both good news and bad news. Good leadership means shaping the narrative — especially when we are pushing our people through dramatic change.


Moving our teams toward change also entails sacrifice and forces people out of comfort zones. Leadership must consider: What are we asking people to give up or adopt? How are we asking them to do this? Are we sending clear and effective signals to our teams, our stakeholders?

A recent Harvard Business Review article noted: “Leaders too often express what they want in terms not of outcomes but of tasks and they rarely, if ever, make clear the full extent of the change they are asking for. It’s also much easier to jump from ‘We need to change’ to ‘Here’s what to do’ than it is to thrash out the difficult trade-offs involved. Left to their own devices, many leadership teams shortchange the questions of what they want the change to achieve, and why.”


How are we cultivating emerging leaders within our organisations? Is this grounded in strong values of adaptive leadership, and are links clearly drawn to the sustainability of the organisation?

In this VUCA world, is our leadership focused on building organisations that understand and create effective customer journeys as a means of constant reinvention, and staying ahead of the competition? How are we taking advantage of today’s powerful analytical tools and behavioural science models as we face our long-term challenges?


In fact adaptive, agile leadership and powerful communication are the anchors of the new world of work. I know how hard it is for them to grapple with the complicated changes their organisations face. But the urgent truth is that today’s leaders must not only steer their organisations through deep and complex change; they must evolve.

Otherwise, they — and their organisations — will go the way of the dinosaur.

Mr Oduor-Otieno is a facilitator of the executive education programme at The Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications.