Prof Sattar Bawany, CEO of the Centre for Executive Education, equips us with the tools to develop cognitive readiness and results-based leadership, to navigate the VUCA world.

"There are two things we can say with certainty about the future: it will be different, and it will surprise. Now, more than ever, leaders have to navigate unfamiliar, challenging times, a quickening pace of change, increasing expectations, and a rising tide of rapidly-evolving conditions. This new and different environment (VUCA) is challenging leaders to find new ways to lead their organisations and achieve sustained success. And, because of these circumstances, there is a thirst for leadership, yet leaders face a whirlwind environment laden with remarkable opportunities and daunting challenges through which to lead their people and organisations.”

- Bonnie, Hagemann, Prof Sattar Bawany et al (2016),  ‘2016 Research on Trends in Executive Development: A Benchmark Report’

The acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) emerged from the military in the 1990s, describing the "fog of war" — the chaotic conditions encountered on a modern battlefield.

Such conditions are highly descriptive of the environment in which business is conducted every day. Leadership as usual is not enough in a VUCA world.

  • Volatile: Things change unpredictably, suddenly, extremely, especially for the worse.
  • Uncertain: Important information is not known or definite; doubtful, unclear about the present situation and future outcomes; not able to be relied upon.
  • Complex: Many different and connected parts: multiple key decision factors, interaction between diverse agents, emergence, adaptation, co-evolution, weak signals.
  • Ambiguous: Open to more than one interpretation; the meaning of an event can be understood in different ways.
Leading in a VUCA world not only provides a challenging environment for leaders and for executive development programmes to have an impact: it also provides a range of new competencies. The new reality is resulting in the realisation that new and different capabilities are needed to succeed.

Importance of cognitive readiness

In a VUCA world, what is needed is cognitive readiness: the preparedness and agility to handle the situation at hand and still prevail.

Critical thinking, the more common and tactical of the thinking skills, involves strategic and creative thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making.

Organisations are prioritising the development of cognitive readiness for leading in a VUCA business environment. In the 2016 EDA survey, respondents identified the importance of developing cognitive readiness in order to be able to think critically.

The chaotic conditions encountered on a modern battlefield are highly descriptive of the environment in which business is conducted every day.
This may reflect a serious commitment to developing these mental capabilities, or it may simply reflect curiosity about the latest leadership development topic and a desire to avoid being left behind.

Either way, two issues are present. First, organisations will need to think creatively about the processes they employ to accelerate the development of cognitive readiness in high potential leaders. Second, organisations may want to explain why, in practice, cognitive readiness is important to their success and then define in much greater depth their expectations.

L.E.A.P. through the fog 

To lead successfully in the VUCA world, leaders need to LEAP through the fog and demonstrate not only cognitive readiness competencies, but also possess the following traits:

  • Liberal: Open to new behaviours or opinions and willing to adapt or discard existing values if and when necessary to adapt to the new world
  • Exuberant: Filled with lively energy, and a sense of passion and optimism in engaging the team and other stakeholders.
  • Agility: Evolve the learning organisation with next-gen leadership competencies including cognitive readiness, critical thinking and emotional and social intelligence.
  • Partnership: Build trust-based partnership with teams (intra and inter) as well as externally with other stakeholders including customers and suppliers.
Cognitive readiness – beyond critical thinking

Traditional critical thinking is the ability to recognise assumptions, evaluate arguments and draw conclusions. Such competencies typically include strategic and creative thinking, problem solving, and decision making.

In the 2016 Trends for Executive Development report Executive Development Associates (EDA), cognitive readiness, on the other hand, has been defined as the mental, emotional, and interpersonal preparedness for uncertainty and risk. It complements critical thinking by emphasising non-rational, non-logical skills (Hagemann, Bawany et al. 2016).

EDA has defined the following set of cognitive readiness competencies:

  1. Situational awareness,
  2. Attentional control,
  3. Metacognition (thinking about your thinking),
  4. Sensemaking (connecting the dots),
  5. Intuition,
  6. Learning agility,
  7. Adaptability,
  8. Dealing with ambiguity, and
  9. Managing emotions.
Organisations will need to think creatively about the processes they employ to accelerate the development of cognitive readiness in high potential leaders.
Overall, heightened cognitive readiness allows leaders to maintain a better sense of self-control in stressful situations.

Results-based leadership framework

There is growing evidence that the range of abilities that constitute what is now commonly known as emotional and social intelligence plays a key role in determining success in life and in the workplace.

Extensive longitudinal research by Centre for Executive Education (CEE) has uncovered links between specific elements of emotional and social intelligence and specific behaviours associated with leadership effectiveness and ineffectiveness in developing an impactful organisational climate.

Managers often fail to appreciate how profoundly the organisational climate can influence financial results, accounting for nearly a third of financial performance.

Organisational climate, in turn, is influenced by leadership style—by the way that managers motivate direct reports, gather and use information, make decisions, manage change initiatives, and handle crises.

There are six basic leadership styles. Each is derived from different emotional intelligence competencies, works best in particular situations, and affects the organisational climate in different ways (Bawany, 2014).

Results-based leadership (RBL) framework

prof sattar bawany diagram



The skills of creating a vision and engaging others around it can be powerfully developed through mentoring and coaching. The hands-on approach of mentoring can enable leaders to observe what someone who has mastered these important skills does, and to solicit advice, input, and coaching on how to transfer what they have observed into their own work.

It may be more challenging to find a mentor who also has highly developed cognitive readiness skills, so being mindful of the mentor’s skillset will be a key to success.

Executive coaching also has significant potential for developing leaders’ capabilities around creating a vision, engaging others around it, and the cognitive readiness skills needed for a VUCA environment.

This type of coaching would need to be focused on all of the skills in an integrated manner, and the executives, human resources partners, mentors, coaches, and others involved in the development program may agree on specific goals and followed by regular meetings to discuss progress.


1) Bonnie Hagemann, Sattar Bawany et al. (2016), Research on Trends in Executive Development: A Benchmark Report, published by published by Executive Development Associates (EDA); Pearson TalentLens and Performance Assessment Network (PAN), February 2016.

2) Bonnie Hagemann & Sattar Bawany (2016), Enhancing Leadership and Executive Development - Latest Trends & Best Practices in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 03.2016.

3) Sattar Bawany (2014), “Building High Performance Organisations with Results-based Leadership (RBL) Framework” in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 11.2014

Lead image: 123RF