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Normal has left the building: 5 ways leaders can handle volatility

The old certainties of “business as usual” have been crushed by disruption — here’s a strategy for resilience.
An office chair, symbolizing leadership through volatility, placed on a textured blue background.
Sharan Pagadala / Unsplash / Vividz Foto / Adobe Stock / Big Think / Ana Kova
Key Takeaways
  • A maelstrom of interconnected economic, social, environmental, and technological elements is currently challenging leaders.
  • More than half (52%) of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 2003 no longer exist today.
  • Five core strategies can help leaders become resilient at a time of great volatility.

With almost deflated resignation, I hear leaders observe how difficult their work is now. How things change so quickly. Those conversations never leave me. Discussions about the speed of change in the mainstream often refer to the growth in technology. But there is so much more. Few consider the storm of interconnected economic, social, environmental, and technological elements that also contribute.

Think about what organizations have faced in the last decade. Cost-of-living crisis. Conflict in Ukraine, the Middle East, and Syria. #MeToo. #BlackLivesMatter. ChatGPT. Extreme forest fires, drought, and flooding events. The pandemic. More polarized and demanding stakeholders. Each of these has tested the robustness of organizations that valued stability and/or ignored the realities. 

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Many organizations have been found wanting, brittle. Just as we will face mass extinctions in the natural environment, so too we can expect them in the corporate world. Indeed, of significant concern is research by WatchMyCompetitor that more than half (52%) of the companies in the Fortune 500 list in 2003 no longer exist today.

Make no mistake, not only has normal left the building but the volatility is only going to get worse. Here are five ways to gain resilience rather than ruin.

#1. Accept the illusion

This will bewilder many of you; still, I have no doubt that what will facilitate leaders to successfully deal with volatility is to accept the illusions they work within. Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari talks about the power of stories, believing that these are what helped humans to outcompete other species. Stories that not only have powerful, often universal, meaning but that enable cooperation, organize us into action and subsequently, progress. Stories still inform how leaders, well, believe that they should lead.

While many stories have informed hierarchical structure, the way that we work, even our mindsets, they are an illusion. Some of what we have taken for granted as being true, what has created certainty for us, is now actively questioned. The story of the singular leader, who can lead us, no matter what is faced, is crumbling in the face of volatility. The first step, as difficult as it may sound, is truly questioning the assumption that you or your team, alone, have enough time, enough perspectives, enough expertise, to adequately confront volatility. You don’t.

Ask yourself: What stories have created meaning within your organization? For you?

#2. Agility not fragility

Many leaders rigidly retain focus on where they place meaning, on the strategic delivery of decisions they made. No matter how things change, organizational strategy and plans, even mindsets, stay solidly unchanged. We see that with organizations intent on forcing employees “back” from WFH (work from home) arrangements. Unfortunately, throughout 2024 and beyond, volatility will continue, threatening viability where organizations don’t adapt. 

Operations now require the capability to respond to seismic change with actions that are focused, fast, and flexible. It requires organizational cultures that are agile and reflective, based on feedback received from KPIs (key performance indicators), customers, external stakeholders. And science.

The agile leader enables their teams to review, learn and adjust. 

As seen with the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, successful organizations anticipate or identify strategic challenges and respond in a brisk, decisive manner. Unlike the leadership styles inherent within centralized, institutional hierarchies that are unable to cope with a constant state of flux, the speed of change being seen is a catalyst for leaders to liberate their thinking and organize work in shorter cycles with progress decentralized, monitored, and evaluated at every stage. The agile leader enables their teams to review, learn and adjust. 

Ask yourself: What lessons did your organization learn about adapting established practices during the pandemic?

#3. Hone your anticipatory skills

Agile leaders and organizations can be better prepared for what volatility may lie ahead of them through improving their anticipatory skills. Let’s face it, we are poor at planning and preparing for the future because too often we base our views of the future on what worked previously. However, we’ve entered uncharted territory: the past is no longer a workable predictor of the future.

If leaders, managers, and their teams are to successfully make sense of the current volatility and what will emerge, they need to be able to anticipate — not predict — what plausible options there are for the future. What could these look like? What implications do they have for your organization? If we have a sense of what may lie ahead of us, then we can be better informed and better prepared to shape a preferred future based on the actions taken in the here and now. 

Importantly, futures thinking enables leaders to reflect on their own mindsets, experience epiphanies, and appreciate how their mindset contributes to the organization’s status quo.

Ask yourself: Where are there situations in your organization where the past is used as a predictor of the future?

#4. Integration not isolation

For leaders and teams to be agile and anticipatory, leaders need to be more holistic, more curious, in their thinking. Historically, we’ve had some blind spots that have constrained strategic thinking. From the Industrial Revolution onwards, we’ve placed meaning on economic growth while assigning little meaning to, for example, environmental and social issues even though they are interconnected with the economy. Looking at the vast majority of organizations’ superficial sustainability programs confirms that. 

By ignoring the holistic, the resulting ripples emanating from our decisions have had consequences. I wonder how many of those issues that I described at the beginning of this article are a reflection of that way of thinking? A very simple means to commence expanding your overview as a leader is through employing PESTLE analyses – political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental analyses. What trends are visible, presently, that may impact upon your organization? What is emerging?

Leadership must adapt, shifting from the still-common heroic leader or the command-and-control leader to a collective style.

However, to truly enhance an understanding of how your decisions can affect your ecosystem, leaders need to become competent in systems mapping. By doing so, leaders can better understand, as Harry R. Yarger — formerly a professor at the US Army War College — observes “how the parts form the whole by looking at parts and relationships among them,” in linear and non-linear ways. I really like that.

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Ask yourself: When has there been a time where your organization excelled at weighing up the interconnectedness of issues? What were the benefits from this approach?

#5. Co-lead the leap

I can’t imagine how stressful this past five years has been for you. Bumps, shocks, and crises. But, put simply, leaders have no choice but to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Normal has left the building and it has no intention of returning.

Indeed, to emphasize this point, consider this quote from futurist David Houle.  “The new and future realities are rushing in everywhere one looks … The old holds on, but is gasping and failing.” Time is up for “business as usual”; volatility will only increase in the next decade.

Leadership must adapt, shifting from the still-common heroic leader or the command-and-control leader to a collective style. Senior leaders setting the vision and overarching strategy; teams determining on their own how to meet that. That entails sharing control, sharing decision making.

That will create some feelings of vulnerability for many leaders. It is only natural to feel scared when taking such a huge leap out of your comfort zone, when you won’t have all the answers. Instead, the aim is to develop more and more people to understand the context and make the decisions. But that starts with you.

Ask yourself: What could be holding your leadership back in a volatile world?

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