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Leadership in a Changing Business Environment

  May 22, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has been changing lifestyles, economies, and business procedures across the world for the past five months. For organizations, the pandemic has posed an entirely new set and scale of questions for leaders.

The business environment pre-COVID was already challenging for many organizations with many shutting down or reducing their workforce. The pandemic has added social and economic hardships to the already tough business terrain. 

It is no big surprise that as the business world changes and becomes less predictable, running organizations becomes more complicated and uncertain. Individuals, teams and the organization as a whole must adapt quickly to avert losses while still meeting the needs of the customer.

We are in a time of accelerating disruptive change. In a VUCA world; one characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, traditional leadership skills will not be enough (Johansen 2012). VUCA is an acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. 

  • Volatility refers to the nature and dynamics of the crisis and its speed, change forces, and catalysts.
  • Uncertainty is the lack of predictability, potential for surprise, and a sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events. As the ongoing pandemic unfolds, the shifting business paradigms and new measures taken by governments around the world have heightened uncertainty and anxiety for both organizations and individuals alike. 
  • Complexity refers to the combination of change forces along with the confusion that surrounds an organization or business during crises. Amidst the Coronavirus crisis, some industries are grappling with an array of problems brought about by various change forces. 
  • Ambiguity is the mixed-meaning of the change conditions; the cause-effect confusion. Ambiguity has been a major source of confusion in the business world seeing that situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic have not been experienced before. 

With the rapidly changing business environment globally, more organizations are vulnerable to VUCA challenges. 

How then do you navigate the Leadership terrain and ensure your organization comes out stronger post-COVID-19?

The best VUCA leaders are characterized by vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. These four skills and abilities can be viewed as a leader’s antidote to a VUCA environment (Johansen, 2012). Strathmore University Business School (SBS) strives to equip leaders with the relevant skills and expertise to navigate challenging situations effectively. Our classes feature Industry experts that help our students to understand how to apply the knowledge they gain in class. Speaking during an online Owner Manager Programme class session at SBS last week, George Ngugi, Managing Partner at Delve Training Limited gave the class participants some tips on how leaders can effectively lead during crises. Specifically, he asserted that leaders should develop their capacity to lead confidently during a crisis by using the following tools suggested by Johansen and gave the class insight on how they are being applied in his industry: 

Vision can be used to counter volatility. In turbulent times vision is more crucial than ever. As a leader, you must have a clear vision of the direction in which the organization is headed in the next 3-5 years. Decisions made to counter turbulence in the business environment must keep in mind the organization’s vision. 

Understanding. Uncertainty can be countered with understanding. During crisis times, leaders must be able to stop, look, and listen, more so beyond their areas of expertise to make sense of the volatility and to lead with vision. 

Clarity. The complexity of any business crisis can be countered by clarity. Leaders must act quickly to make sense of the chaos and keep in mind that chaos comes fast and hard. Leaders who can respond quickly and stay in tune with all issues associated with the crisis tend to make better and more informed business decisions.

Agility. Ambiguity can be countered with agility, the ability to communicate across the organization and to move quickly to apply solutions. How agile is your team? Agile leaders can react quickly to changing events and are not easily bogged down by challenges.

Four Tips for Leading and Adapting Through a Crisis

  1. Seek credible information. As a leader, it is your responsibility to determine the most reliable, up-to-date information only from trustworthy news sources.
  2. Use appropriate communication channels. After collecting the relevant and reliable information, you must ensure that it is shared with the entire organization by every means possible. Transparency is key. “Information is the oil that greases an organization and keeps it running smoothly,” Klann says, “This is especially true during a crisis” (Klann,2000). Information is powerful because it provides tactical guidance, reduces emotional distress, diminishes fear, and shows employees that their leaders are concerned, knowledgeable, and on top of the situation.
  3. Talk about what your organization is doing about the crisis. During a crisis, time is compressed and there is a huge amount of pressure to act and act quickly. In times of crisis, you need to begin dealing with an issue before you have a clear understanding of what is happening. The pressure to do something, to be proactive, and to show initiative is exacerbated if you are a leader. Even as you take actions and make decisions, you must communicate those actions in an honest and truthful manner.
  4. Accessibility. Leaders must be visible and available during crisis times, let employees know how they can best reach you with status updates and questions. When there is a crisis, employees need to hear from their leaders more frequently.  “When leaders appear calm, concerned, knowledgeable, and in charge, workers feel encouraged and are more likely to have confidence that things are under control and will be fine,” (Klann 2000).

The COVID-19 pandemic will alter the business environment significantly, some areas and industries will never be the same again. It is imperative that leaders act quickly and effectively to ensure sustainability and even growth during and post COVID-19. 


    1. Johansen, B. ( 2012) Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World
    2. Klann, G. (2000) Crisis Leadership: Using Military Lessons, Organizational Experiences, and the Power of Influence to Lessen the Impact of Chaos on the People You Lead

Learn more about the Owner Manager Programme here.

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Article by Juliet Hinga


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