Practice of the Month



The Resilient Leadership Team has made frequent use of the VUCA acronym during our Leadership Development Trainings and Coaching work.

Virtually every leader we work with recognizes that ours is a world marked by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. More and more, we add to these four characteristics the reality of Polarization—a sad but expanding spread of extremism —a way of thinking and acting that divides individuals and groups into separate camps that stake out positions that are polar opposites from one another.

There is no allowance for a middle ground or for neutral positions that favor “both-and” rather than “either-or”.

Writing this essay in the first week of November, it is virtually impossible to escape feeling the pressure to be drawn into this VUCA + P world. Within the space of weeks, the recent conflict in the Middle East between Hamas and Israel may have escalated into a massive regional war involving global superpowers. Within the next month, domestic political conflicts in the United States may result in a financial meltdown whose repercussions are literally global in scope. Extreme weather events this winter may fuel an intensifying debate over climate change—is it real, and if so, what are its human contributions, and what urgent actions are required to slow humankind’s inexorable march toward global catastrophe? Or… are we in a panic over “natural” climate patterns whose fluctuations over millennia represent a mere ebb and flow that needs to be managed but does not call for any urgent action?

In the face of these and many other destabilizing phenomena, the Resilient Leadership model recognizes how great the impact of increasing levels of anxiety felt by individuals and by organizations of every scale—from nuclear families to the global family of nations. And as anxiety escalates, so does our tendency towards reactivity rather than thoughtfulness. In the world of neuroscience and its many popular applications to the workplace or psychotherapy, the term “amygdala hijack” describes how easily our feeling brain can override our thinking brain, with counter-productive and even tragic results.

In such troubled times, how can we be resilient leaders—at work, with friends and neighbors, at home, and in the sphere of individual self-care?

Our first impulse, when threatened, is to react. Our primitive brain shouts at us: “For heaven’s sake, DO SOMETHING!”

But our thinking brain urges caution and offers guidance. The Resilient Leadership model provides a framework for calm, clarity, and courage in the face of what can feel like a barrage of lethal threats. It reminds us that some comments and actions during times like these must be avoided. For example, to maintain our balance and our leadership effectiveness, we cannot:

  • Withdraw in the face of high anxiety.
  • Tell others how they should feel and what they should think or do, especially when tempted to provide our unsolicited opinion.
  • Seek only information that supports our current viewpoint.
  • Focus exclusively on advocacy for our own beliefs while ignoring the views of others.
  • Adopt an “us versus them” or “good versus bad” perspective that overly simplifies the complexity of hot-button issues.

Such behaviors are examples of reactive choices. And we always have a choice. Reactive responses to emotionally charged issues are common but not inevitable. There are better options. Whenever we are faced with a difficult, complex, emotion-laden issue, taking a pause for a deep breath (or two) can provide the space for thoughtfulness to override the amygdala hijack.

These are the kinds of practical suggestions that can help us respond in a more thoughtful way.

  • Ask if there is a way to reframe what we are seeing or thinking - to replace strident judgment with genuine curiosity.
  • Stay connected to those whose different perspectives may feel threatening, ignorant, or even deliberately evil.
  • Listen to everyone’s story. Their experience has informed their perspective, and working to understand their experience at a deeper level may yield new insights and a better appreciation of their viewpoint.
  • Share what you believe - and what you are unsure of - in a calm and thoughtful manner, allowing space for vulnerability.
  • Embrace your own fallibility. It can open the door to true humility and make new, breakthrough learnings possible.
  • Stay Calm. Stay Informed. Stay Curious. Stay Connected. Stay Thoughtful.

Resilient Leadership Founder Bob Duggan and Resilient Leadership Trainers Mike Nowland and John Moyer contributed to this article.

Learn more about how to See, Think, and Lead, especially in anxious times: