Carol Kauffman's picture Submitted by Carol Kauffman June 2, 2016 - 7:13am

Leading in so-called VUCA times – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – is like trying to navigate through a sandstorm. Many executives have honed skills that were suitable for a very different environment, but everything is changing, and what worked for navigating, say, the ocean doesn’t work in the desert. What’s going to save you and your company is the ability to transcend ego, because your brain has to work differently in VUCA situations.

When running up against a negative force, the tendency is to narrow one’s attention to focus on the immediate threat. While this may suffice for survival in the wild, it isn’t so helpful for leading a large, complex organization. In high-stress situations, you need to get other parts of your brain working – stimulating creativity, widening your perspective, and exploring potential solutions. This improves performance.

To counteract those negative impulses, I find it helps to activate positive emotional states. Positive emotion doesn’t mean putting on a happy face. It means being grounded, centered or calm. You are fully engaged. More than anything, it means finding a sense of meaning and higher purpose in what you are doing.

One technique for activating the positive when you find yourself caught in a sandstorm is to think, “What are we doing right?” When everything is in chaos and you feel like you’re in freefall, identifying the things you’re doing right can help you to reset.

Another technique is to view tasks as individual pieces, rather than fixating on the whole and stressing yourself out with the magnitude of all the tasks you have to accomplish. Choose which task you will start with, and just start doing it. Cross the rest of the bridges when you get to them. Don’t let the big picture slow you down. This is not just pop psychology. These techniques have strong research evidence behind them.

As a leader, having to make quick decisions can feel overwhelming: this is normal. For the people working for you, the stress they may feel in difficult times is normal, too. Your job is to know how to help them as well as yourself.

To do this, you have to be able to function like a coach. This means working on improving relationships with the people around you, finding their individual strengths and motivations, and enabling them to improve performance. Similar to activating positive reactions in yourself, this is known as transformational leadership.

In transformational leadership, you want to give as much individual consideration to the people working for you, and provide them with emotional support. Realizing the emotional state of the people you are leading is the key to inspiring them. This shouldn’t fall by the wayside in difficult times.

I always advise leaders to ask the people working for them at least three open questions about the situation and how they are coping with it before launching into telling them what to do. If you can ask open questions, and you genuinely believe in your people and their resourcefulness, then this will bring an entirely different quality to your relationship.

It may seem that being in the middle of a sandstorm is not the best time to be practicing techniques like these, because there’s too much else going on. But it’s worth fostering transformational leadership at all times. In fact, the strongest connection between transformational leadership and performance is seen precisely in VUCA times.

Volatility can make even the most confident people doubt themselves. You can temporarily lose sense of your own competence. Any time set aside to remember that you are skilled, and to consider how you can develop that, is time well spent.

It’s also essential to remember that it’s normal for even the best leaders to hit slumps in performance or confidence. Take the time to be dedicated to your own growth, development and self-care. Studies confi rm that when you do, the results will follow.