In the Grip of COVID-19: Leading in Uncertainty, Volatility, Complexity and Fear

Contributing authors: Gary Hoffman and Michael Hein

The feeling I’ve had the last several weeks during the fallout from COVID-19 reminds me of a situation I experienced awhile back.

It was a beautiful Hawaiian day: clear sky, mild breeze, and big waves. I knew the tide was stronger, as is the norm in big surf. What I didn’t know was where the currents were worse and just how strong they would be. While on my boogey board paddling towards a break, I felt the pull of the riptide take hold of me. Within seconds, despite all my efforts, I was powerless to fight it.

I can still sense the fear that arose in me in that moment. As I was pulled out to deep water, (where the tiger sharks live), I knew the riptide would eventually let go of me. But I couldn’t know just how far out I would be. In that moment all I could do was ride it out, conserve my energy and calm my fears in the face of uncertainty.

We’ve all watched the world get pulled into the grip of a pandemic. Evidence of fear is everywhere. The headlines, notifications, and emails are nonstop. Leaders and teams in every sector are called to action in unprecedented and historic ways.

In challenging situations like this, there’s a tool I’ve found helpful to help me structure my thinking in the face of fear.

This tool was derived from leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus; and used by the US military. It’s known as VUCA, an acronym for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. I can leverage the distinctions of these elements to help get my bearings, calm my fear, and move forward with a thoughtful response rather than a reaction.

In 1998, Lieutenant  Colonel Wayne Whitehead referenced the importance for leaders to discern the differences of the words that make up the VUCA acronym and how they guide us in response to a given situation: “In environments that can be characterized by volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous conditions, it is necessary to structure organizations in such a way that will meet the challenges presented by the environment”.

Each of the components of VUCA are unique. They’re distinguished by whether the cause and effect of the situation is known and how well we can predict outcomes.

For example, in ambiguous situations, cause and effect are not known or understood; therefore, one can’t predict how their actions will play out. The best response for a leader in this type of situation is to experiment and learn about the cause and effect.

In contrast, with uncertainty, even though cause and effect are known, the circumstances are such that there are a wide range of possible outcomes. As a result, we can only forecast best- and worst-case scenarios with a plethora of possibilities in between. The response therefore is to get as much information as possible to home in on the best set of actions to take.

While it’s been used somewhat casually at times, the VUCA acronym can help leaders to be more specific, confident, and effective in response to challenging situations.

VUCA & COVID-19

Our current volatility can be best described as historic. The hallmark of a volatile situation is instability and rapid change. Today, we have unforeseen changes coming not just daily, but hourly. Just a few weeks ago, who would have imagined we would be where we are today. It reminds me of John Lennon’s quote: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”. The response to volatility is to build slack into systems where it doesn’t already exist by devoting and/or diverting resources to cover all the bases (preparedness), while regaining stability. When I was in practice, we would refer to this as the shotgun approach. It’s not ideal (warning – it’s not in the budget), but it’s necessary when the situation calls for it.

To say the situation is complex simply cannot adequately capture the reality of this global situation. Complex situations are distinguished by the number of interconnected parts and the variable relationships between them. Cause and effect can only be known retrospectively. Some information can be known, but the sheer volume and nature of the interconnected parts makes it hard or impossible to analyze let alone predict. The best response to complexity is to restructure existing systems and processes to match the new environment.

In addition to volatility and complexity, leaders are being challenged by managing the fear that arises from the uncertainty. While we know much about the virus, viral spread, and public health measures used to combat spread; there remains a wide range of possible outcomes between the best- and worst-case scenarios. It’s not possible to predict with absolute confidence how long the pandemic will last, nor our capacity to respond, nor the ultimate costs and aftermath to our country and society. While it’s difficult to cull through the noise we download daily, reliable information will continue to emerge, the “range of predictions” will narrow and our actions will become more targeted.

Fear is a natural emotional response to the uncertainty of COVID-19 and leaders themselves are not immune from it. A leader’s best response to uncertainty and the antidote to fear is the provision of accurate information delivered tactfully, honestly, and authentically. Being blunt or inauthentic invites more fear while being political adds anger. Neuroscience informs us that both of these emotions can highjack our ability to think and act rationally which is exactly what is not needed at this time.

Many of my former colleagues on the front lines of this pandemic have confided in me that they’re fearful of what’s coming. But then they add, “it seems like there’s an unspoken expectation that I shouldn’t be.”

Failing to acknowledge fear only serves to keep it front and center. On the other hand, acknowledging it and labelling it helps to normalize it. In so doing, it calms the fear and releases the thinking, rational brain to focus on the tasks at hand. Courageous leaders know that fear is a companion when faced with uncertainty and this understanding allows them to move forward in spite of it.

Regarding ambiguity, the COVID-19 pandemic is not really an ambiguous situation. We know the cause and effect of the pandemic, we have precedent with other viruses, and we know most elements of what needs to be done: protect our people, our organizations, and our society. It’s at this point, however, that we bump into volatility, complexity, and uncertainty which creates the unending choices (and debate!) about how to do it.

As I reflect over the last two weeks, our government, economic, business, and healthcare leaders are responding daily in truly historic ways as the situation and information evolves. Elements of the VUCA responses mentioned above can be seen in the actions taken.

Our system is being modified to match the environment: social distancing, eliminating large events, entire states sheltering in place. Suddenly outdated structures, policies, and regulations are being restructured almost overnight.

Imagine trying to create a drive-through lab just three weeks ago!

Massive investments are being made in response to volatility and uncertainty. All of these responses will not just support us while we do what we need to do, but they will also improve our chances of recovering when it’s over.

Lastly, managing the message and matching the speed of the response to the pace of the evolving situation are additional challenges in this highly volatile, complex, uncertain situation. Nevertheless, understanding the inherent nature of these VUCA situations and acknowledging the fear can help leaders respond courageously with confidence and authenticity as they lead us through this pandemic.

In Hawaii, when the riptide finally let go, the shore was off in the distance. For a moment, there was a quiet stillness and a memorable sense of relief as I came to realize it was over and I could start to paddle back to shore. On the front end of this pandemic, I find myself praying that sooner rather than later, we will have a similar sense of relief when it’s over.

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