Developing our Leaders to Manage Chaos

In this article, I just want to talk to you about some recent changes we’re noticing in developing leaders in very chaotic environments.
The Current Business Environment

There’s a new term being used called VUCA to describe the current highly complex, business environments. It’s a term previously used by the U.S. Military around the complex environments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s currently being adopted by business leaders around the world to describe what’s happening in their current business environment.

What is VUCA?

VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Change happens rapidly and on a very large scale. Things are very volatile and they’re also uncertain so the future cannot be predicted with any precision, and so we’ve got this volatility, uncertainty combined with complexity.

Challenges are complicated by many factors and there are a few simple causes or solutions. We’ve got this volatile, uncertain, complex environment that’s also ambiguous. There’s little clarity on what events mean and what effect they may have in the future.

We’ve got this complex VUCA environment that most of our businesses are starting to deal in and there’s some evidence to suggest that it’s going to continue for quite a while.

What does this mean in terms of our ability and the tools available for us to develop our business leaders?

If we talk about leadership development models, there are probably two clear models. One is what we call “horizontal development” and the second one is “vertical development”.

What is horizontal development?

Horizontal development is most useful when a problem is clearly defined or there is known techniques for solving it. We’re talking about traditional training for things like routine surgery, engineering, maintenance, bookkeeping, those sorts of things and many others where there is a well-defined skillset and it’s easier to find people.

It’s very outcome-focused and a lot of the “Certificate 4” training in Australia is built around this horizontal learning.

What is vertical development?

What we’re finding though in a VUCA environment, it’s really important that our business leaders have vertical skills. These are the skills to plan, problem solve and allow us to evolve our leadership management abilities to make sense of this very complex world. They are about collaboration. Coaching and “soft skills”.

We get these vertical skills through applied learning and then by pushing through hurdles and barriers that enable us to learn from the application of these things. It’s about providing skills that are adaptable, collaborative, create problem solvers and good planners, and creating leaders that are very self-aware.

Vertical training is all about giving them the tools to deal with this VUCA environment, if you will. It’s about a different training.

Next Steps

It raises a couple a questions for me – where is your business development currently focused? Horizontally or vertically?

Many companies that I talk to are very horizontally-focused still and we need to spend more time on giving our people and our leaders the skills and the tools to vertically-challenged.

You need to understand where it needs to be focused in your business and make sure there’s a balance between horizontal skills-based training and vertical training which is about aptitude and giving people the freedom and the flexibility to solve problems in a very complex world.

Our belief is that vertical development of business leaders is really important. We also see it as an ongoing process of training, applied learning so applying the tools and processes to real problems in your business and learning from those outcomes, about collaboration as teams and about sharing your best practice across your organization.

For more information on how we approach this and what some of our thoughts are, please visit which is and watch a short video on business leaders which explains this in a bit more detail.

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