2012 Volume 15 Issue 3

Bridging the Complexity Gap:

Bridging the Complexity Gap:

Leading Effectively in a VUCA World

In the weeks before September 11, the U.S. Army War College coined the term VUCA to stand for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments. Globalization, information technology, economic and political instability, and climate change create a level of interconnection and interdependence that requires a new kind of leadership.

The Complexity Challenge

Studies by KMPG and IBM[1] identify navigating in this environment as a critical success factor for leaders. The most important resource you have under your control for navigating this complexity is your leadership mindset—the collection of beliefs, values, assumptions and experiences, often unconscious, that inform how you interpret your world and take action. Is your leadership mindset prepared for how the VUCA world shows up in your organization?

Research suggests that less than 10 percent of us have the leadership mindset required to meet the demands of the VUCA world.[2] A mindset that embraces ambiguity and uncertainty, is agile in perspective taking, and values interdependence over dependence or independence.

Vertical development is the term used to describe approaches to leadership development that build mindset capacity.[3] This article presents a neuroscience informed vertical development model that helps bridge the gap between your current mindset and the complexity mindset that prepares you to lead more effectively in a VUCA world.

[See VIDEOS at end of article for additional information.]

The Opportunity

What’s the value proposition for focusing on the vertical dimension of leadership development? Leaders in companies with over $5 billion in revenue report a positive relationship between a more developed mindset and leadership effectiveness.[4] Our mindset continues to develop throughout our life. At each stage we make sense of ourselves, others, and the world in more integrated, complex, and effective ways.

Our mindset is partially shaped by the way that our brain functions. At the most basic level, our brains are wired to help us survive threatening situations. Unfortunately, VUCA conditions, though they pose little threat to our physical survival inside of the organization, are likely to trigger a threat response in our brain that is incompatible with leading effectively.

The Importance of Neuroscience

In the last 20 years, we have learned more about the brain than in the entire course of human history.[5] Neuroplasticity, our ability to alter neural structures and the very physiology of the brain, is a fact. We can use our mind to change our brain, develop our mindset and create new options for thinking, performing, and relating.

How do we translate the benefits of neuroplasticity into a practical approach to developing a complexity mindset? What practices can we adopt to grow our mind that increase our ability to move from a reactive, threat based response to the kind of dynamism required to deal with a VUCA world?

Let’s begin by reviewing your day at work.

Your Brain in a VUCA World

For a few minutes, imagine that it is 3:00 p.m. on a typical work day. So far your day has been filled with constant meetings and responding to others. Right now, you have an hour to yourself before more meetings that will absorb your attention into early evening. What would you typically do with this hour? Jot down your response.

Before going on, take a moment to think about how that hour might be different if you wanted to support optimal performance. Would you change your response in any way? Note the first ideas that come to you.

Next, in a few words respond to these questions and then set your responses aside as you read the rest of the article.

  1. What percentage of your time do you spend multi-tasking?
  2. During your work day, how often do you listen to your body, your emotions, your energy, and adjust your actions to obtain optimal performance?
  3. When your hot buttons are pushed at work, what do you do to regain your equilibrium? Do you view these as self-development opportunities?
  4. What is the quality of your relationships at work when change is the order of the day? If you avoid anyone at work—is it a chronic pattern and how is it impacting your effectiveness?

Developing a Complexity Mindset

There are four capabilities that form the pillars on a development bridge that can close the gap from your current mindset to the complexity mindset. They are: dynamic attention, integrated SPINE capacity, strategic clarity and authentic collaboration. These capabilities expand thinking, improve performance, and support high-impact relationships. They are grounded in recent neuroscience discoveries for mind-brain integration.

As your read about these four capabilities, refer back to the four questions you answered at the beginning of this article. Each question is addressed in the context of a capability.

Dynamic AttentionImproving Thinking, Performing, and Relating

In a world of distractions, our ability to deploy our attention is one of our finest tools for dealing with complexity. However, in today’s environment, it may be a scarce resource.

Multi-tasking and continuous partial attention (CPA) on all but routine tasks impairs our performance. The challenge is that most of us go through the day on auto-pilot. The solution is to become more mindfully aware. This is the role of the executive function of the brain.

For a minute, think of your attention as if it were a flashlight. If the executive function of your brain were in charge, you would have the discipline and insight to know when to focus narrowly on detail and more broadly on the big picture strategic environment. You could turn your attention inward to understand yourself and gain insight; and focus intentionally on others to better understand their state of mind.

Building dynamic attention comes from repeated experiences where you have the self-discipline to unplug from distractions long enough to experience the shift in point of view that comes with new insights. You can begin to develop your dynamic attention by establishing a practice routine. The steps below will get you started.

  1. Create a distraction free work zone.
  2. Jot down your goal for this exercise. What project or challenge would benefit from your uninterrupted focus?
  3. Set aside 20 minutes every day where your attention is focused on one item and note what changes.
  4. After one week, identify your biggest challenges to establishing a rhythm where you have uninterrupted time. With this insight, pursue the 20 minutes uninterrupted time per day goal for another week.
  5. Week three, increase your focused attention to include 60 minutes of uninterrupted time a day and track your response to challenging situations during the week. Note if your ability to respond with more insight has expanded.

Integrated Whole Person (SPINE) CapacityConnecting Fully to Our Internal Resources

Most of us have internal resources that are underdeveloped. We refer to this collection of internal resources using the acronym SPINE. SPINE capacity is your ability to develop and integrate the spiritual, physical, intellectual, intuitive and emotional dimensions of self. Think of your SPINE as the backbone of developing a complexity mindset.

  • Spiritual—developing a sense of meaning, purpose, and community at work
  • Physical—understanding how to manage well-being and energy; use body as signaling system
  • Intellectual—comfortable with complexity and ambiguity; thinks systemically
  • iNtuitive—able to see patterns in unrelated data; source of creativity and insight
  • Emotion—value emotions as information; able to regulate emotions and attune to self and others

Each of the SPINE dimensions is associated with powerful individual and organizational benefits.[6] When integrated they provide the stability, agility, inspiration, and energy required to deal with complex environments.

Because thinking serves at the pleasure of emotion, our emotional maturation provides a necessary platform for the quantum leap from thought to wisdom.

—Dr. Louis Cozolino, Pepperdine University Professor of Psychology

How do you strengthen connection to each aspect of your SPINE? Begin by following the link below to a short self assessment of each of the five dimensions.


Note one or two areas that you would like to focus on for the next 10 days. Identify specific actions you can take to develop and integrate your chosen dimension. We have offered some suggestions below. Track your progress by including time for SPINE reflection and writing each day.

  1. Take the opportunity each day to look for inspiration and meaning in the work that you do.
  2. Develop a map of your physical signaling system. Note what gives you energy and what depletes you. Pay attention to what your body is telling you about the decisions that you are making.
  3. Expand your problem solving circle to include perspectives that are different from your own.
  4. Take time every day to develop your intuition by spending time in nature with no focus and no agenda.
  5. Spend a week paying attention to how emotions impact your thinking. Using your dynamic attention, ask yourself—how do my feelings impact my performance?

Strategic Clarity—Putting the Wise Self in Charge

Strategic clarity is our ability to step back and assess a situation, challenge our current understanding, seek additional information, incorporate new insights, and take action—all in real time.

What gets in the way of strategic clarity? Neural ruts and our inner committee.

You may have heard the phrase, “What fires together wires together.” It describes how your experiences create neural connections in the brain that can lead to automatic behaviors. Think of them as neural ruts. When you find yourself having a surprisingly strong reaction in a situation, your wise self may not be in charge. It could be a member of your inner committee: that less mature aspect of yourself that sometimes takes over in stressful conditions.

Cultivating your wise self, the executive function of the brain, comes about when you learn to do the following: 1) step back and identify what is happening in the moment; 2) connect your reaction to previous experiences; 3) understand that you can assess those experiences from a wiser, more mature perspective; and 4) apply the insights gained to create a more evolved perspective on the situation. Practicing these four steps over time will help you develop a complexity mindset.

To put this into practice try the following:

  1. Think of a situation where you have felt challenged. Describe what happened and the feelings that you were having. What aspect of yourself was in charge?
  2. Ask yourself, where has this happened before? What was my response then? What is my response now? What would a wiser response look and feel like?

Authentic Collaboration—Creating Community in the Workplace

The VUCA environment calls for an agile response to change and unprecedented levels of collaboration inside the organization and across its boundaries.

Earlier we asked if your mindset was prepared for a VUCA world. What about the mindset, or culture, of your organization? Does it foster collaboration and mitigate the uncertainty and discomfort that often accompanies change? Is your organization an open network where communication flows freely and creativity and innovation are prized?

Viewing the organization as a community capitalizes on our natural desire for connection to others. Neural plasticity—our ability to change the brain—is optimized in the context of familiar and caring others. As leaders we can support and model communities that become “healthy tribes” where accountability, self-awareness, and compassion are equally valued.

To strengthen your authentic collaboration capability work with the following questions for five consecutive days. This will call for dynamic attention, integrated SPINE capacity, and strategic clarity. Observe how your responses change over the course of these five days.

  1. How much empathy and compassion did you have for yourself and others at work today? How much time did you spend on authentic conversations and relationship building?
  2. Did you make progress on a work relationship that is calling for your attention? Why or why not? How does it feel to make this a major focus this week?


Although the VUCA world may seem overwhelming, you can use principles from vertical development and neuroscience in the form of the four capabilities to establish a set of leadership practices that will serve you and your organization.

The complexity mindset is not only critical to the bottom line, it is critical to the human experience inside and outside of organizations.

In the beginning of the article, we asked you what you would do with 60 minutes to support your performance at 3:00 p.m. on a work day. Reflecting on that question now and considering that every choice you make impacts the quality of mind-brain integration for optimal performance—what might you do every day with 60 minutes of uninterrupted time?

Additional Material:

VIDEO Interviews with Leaders that Illustrate the Impact of the Four Capabilities

The interviews were conducted as part of a seven month neuroscience based vertical leadership development program designed and implemented by Terri Egan, PhD, and Suzanne Lahl, MSOD.

This research and the resulting video were sponsored by the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Center for Applied Research, Graziadio School of Business and Management, Pepperdine University.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pittsburgh Foundation or Pepperdine University.

VIDEOS: Strategic Leading in Complex Environments

Capability #1: Dynamic Attention

Capability #2: Integrated SPINE Capacity

Capability #3: Strategic Clarity

Capability #4: Authentic Collaboration

Copyright © 2012 by Lahl and Egan, LLC. All rights reserved.

Videos edited by Alex Cox, alcox22@gmail.com


[1] IBM study, “Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study,” http://www-935.ibm.com/services/us/ceo/ceostudy2010/index.html.

KPMG study, Confronting Complexity: How Business Globally is Taking on the Challenges and Opportunities, http://www.kpmg.com/global/en/issuesandinsights/articlespublications/pages/confronting-complexity-report.aspx.

[2] Kegan, R., and L. Lahey. Adult Development and Organizational Leadership. (Harvard Business Press: Boston, 2010).

[3] Center for Creative Leadership, Leading More Effectively e-Newsletter, January 2012, http://uwww.ccl.org/leadership/enewsletter/2012/JANtrend.aspx.

[4] Eigel, K.M., and K.W. Kuhnert,. “Authentic Development: Leadership Development Level and Executive Effectiveness”; in W. L. Gardner, B. J. Avolio, and F. O. Walumbwa (Eds.), Authentic Leadership Theory and Practice: Origins, Effects and Development. (Elsevier Science: Oxford, UK, 2005, 357-385).

[5] Hanson, R. and R. Mendius, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, (New Harbinger Publications: Oakland, CA, 2009).

[6] Campbell, A., J. Whitehead, and Finkelstein, Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions, (Harvard Business School Press: Boston, 2009)

Dane, E., and M. G. Pratt, “Exploring Intuition and Its Role in Managerial Decision Making,” Academy of Management Review, 32(1) (2007).

Duchon, D. and A Ashmos Plowman, “Nurturing the Spirit at Work: Impact on Work Performance. Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 16 (5) (2005).

Egan, T. D., and A. E. Feyerherm, “Emotional Dynamism: Playing the Music of Leadership,” Graziadio Business Report , 10 (2) (2007).

Hoffman, B. J., and B. F. Frost, “Multiple Intelligences of Transformational Leaders: An Empirical Examination,” International Journal of Manpower, 27 (1) (2006): 37-51.

Pearce, C. L., “The Future of Leadership Development: The Importance of Identity, Multi-level Approaches, Self-leadership, Physical Fitness, Shared Leadership, Networking, Creativity, Emotions, Spirituality and On-boarding Processes,” Human Resource Management Review, (2007): 354-359.

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Authors of the article
Suzanne Lahl, MSOD
Suzanne Lahl, MSOD, (Master of Science in Organization Development, Graziadio School of Business and Management, Pepperdine University, CA) is a specialist in strategic thinking, leadership and organization development. For three decades she has created programs to enhance human performance, powerful leadership and insightful life experience. Her background in psychology, consciousness studies, communication, health and well-being, and organization development supports an expanded and integrated approach to learning and development. Suzanne has been applying neuroscience discoveries to her international coaching and leadership development practice for over a decade. Suzanne is an adjunct faculty member in the globally top ranked MSOD program at Pepperdine University. She is the co-founder of Lahl and Egan, LLC (www.lahlandegan.com).
Terri D. Egan, PhD
Terri D. Egan, PhD
Terri D. Egan, PhD, is Academic Director of Pepperdine University’s top ranked Masters of Science in Organization Development (MSOD) program and Associate Professor of Applied Behavioral Sciences at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. She has taught graduate and executive courses in personal development, leadership, team effectiveness, organizational change and development, creativity and innovation and international organization development. Her award winning research has been published in a number of journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, Journal of Public Administration, The Information Society, Human Relations, and the Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner. Dr. Egan’s current research and practice focuses on integrating neuroscience discoveries into organization and leadership development theory and practice. She is the co-founder of Lahl and Egan, LLC (www.lahlandegan.com). She holds an interdisciplinary degree in Social Sciences, an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior all from the University of California, Irvine and is a guild certified practitioner of the Feldenkrais® Method of Somatic Education.
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