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A Co-Active Leadership Response to a VUCA World

  • POSTED ON APRIL 29, 2024
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If you read the headlines, we are living in times described as unprecedented, challenging, crisis-laden, opportune, urgent, and more. In the late 1980s, as a response to accelerating change in society and specifically leadership, the term VUCA came into the public discourse. Based on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus and (arguably) first used by the U.S. Army War College, VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  

The term offers some real value in discussions about leadership. There are also inherent challenges with how it positions the human response to change — especially the current scale and pace of change across many facets of life on Earth.  

One of the biggest challenges I’ve experienced in working as an advisor to leaders and as an executive is that VUCA can create a mindset that sees change and challenge as an adversary to be managed, controlled, defeated, or minimized. While not exclusively used in a military context, the energy of battle, winning, and survival feels inherent to VUCA in how it’s positioned. Whether that’s true or not, a balancing perspective also feels needed. 

Here’s a perspective that is much older than VUCA, one that is both simple and complex, and one that humans engaged with whole-heartedly until the middle stages of the 20th century when science and technology came to the forefront of modernized life. The perspective is that life is filled with mystery. Even in today’s world, with so many technologies, tools, and systems designed to create a sense of certainty, life throws mysterious events and circumstances at us daily. 

Why do certain events occur? Why do they happen to me, or others, when they do? Why do some difficult circumstances end up being favorable as time unfolds, and vice versa? It’s hard to argue that at least a small percentage of our lives is forever shrouded in mystery. If we’re willing to acknowledge this experience, what is our stance, response, or level of comfort with our world being mysterious? 

Whether or not I call the unexpected events of life uncertainty, ambiguity, or mystery, I notice a paradox start to emerge. Life is either a mystery in which I am an actor and co-creator, but not controller, or a set series of variables that, if I work hard enough, anticipate enough, and protect enough, I can control. In the first, I am a part of something larger. In the second, I am at the centre of it all. 

In between these two poles is a lot of space and opportunity to see and respond to the changing circumstances of our world. Today, we see leaders taking a clear position on either controlling and protecting past or current ways of living, consuming, and operating or being open to emergent, experimental, and co-creative ways of engaging life. Both paths have value and will result in successes and failures, if we’re humble enough to admit them.  

For me, it is the choice behind my actions that is key to embracing a VUCA and mysterious world. I want to choose to ground in a way of being (or a mindset) that has me feel like I’m engaged with life creatively and responsibly. In this, I both co-create the experience I’m having and am shaped by circumstances and forces well beyond my control. Otherwise, life just happens to us, whether it’s VUCA, mysterious, or something else. 

Which leads me to Co-Active leadership. 

Co-Active leadership is a point-of-view, model, and map that ignites an instinctual guidance system that has allowed me to choose how I want to engage with the great mystery of life. It also insists that we all co-create our world, together, every day. This is a critical first step. If we can’t acknowledge that we each and all are agents in the changes affecting the world, then blame and hopelessness take over. 

Co-Active leadership invites me to see my part in the mysterious, VUCA world as a responsible agent of creation in the process — from a relaxed, alert, curious stance. Co-Active leadership asks us to dance with all the relationships we’re in every day — with ourselves, one another, our wider world — and to account for our impact with grace, honesty, and resolve. We can blend with what's here and co-lead with how events are unfolding. We can take the lead and shift it into a new direction, creating from the impact that emerges. We listen and attune deeply to all the currents of life, and we weave, illuminate, and act in courageous ways. It doesn’t mean life is easy or predictable. It does invite us to relax into a purposeful orientation of alertness, openness, and adaptability aligned to a vision. 

Co-Active leadership also introduced me to a powerful series of practices that help me remember who I am amid all the mystery, volatility, and ambiguity. It taught me to recover to my integral or whole self (to live in integrity) and the power base that is uniquely mine. From there, I can show up for my partners, my teams, my co-leaders, and my family, ready to synergistically create vs. react to what’s here now. 

So, what does all this look like in application? Here’s a story about CTI and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In March 2020, Carey Baker and I were co-leading CTI as co-CEOs when the world as we knew it came to a halt as the pandemic took hold. The impacts of COVID19 were, and continue to be, devastating for many, personally and professionally.  Part of me can relate as my mom died in May 2020. It was extra hard given the public health restrictions meant we couldn’t be surrounded by loved ones.   

For CTI, it also meant that overnight, we had to shutter 75% of our revenue-producing products. This, coupled with some financial restraints, meant we had a very short operating runway as a business unless we could respond decisively and quickly. While CTI was celebrated for many strengths in the quality of our faculty, product design, and experience, pivoting quickly as a business was not known to be one. 

Some of the greatest assets Carey and I had were a strong grounding in Co-Active leadership, our co-leadership, and an engaged organization. While the business made a number of powerful moves, arguably the most important choice Carey and I made was to pause before reacting and get grounded in who we were, what CTI was here to do, and the orientation we were going to hold on this moment in time. From that came a shift from seeing the pandemic as an adversary and crisis born of a VUCA world to it being our co-leader. A shift from seeing the pandemic as a volatile adversary to it being a teacher and ally showing up in the great mystery. What was the COVID-19 pandemic here to illuminate for CTI? What opportunities was it insisting we attend to and consider? What was it time to end? Begin?  

In the moment of making the choice to see COVID-19 as our co-leader, we began to embrace the challenge and mystery with curiosity, purpose, and vision. We asked for help from our teams, board, partners, and suppliers, and from our Mystery herself. We began to dream with our executive team what we wanted for the mission of CTI, the culture, the products and services, and our communities around the world. 

What transpired were significant systemic changes in how the whole organization related to one another, the business, and our work of Co-Active. Collectively, we saw the foundations of Co-Active as the way to be in these changes together, while acknowledging the future was truly mysterious. We chose to open our minds and hearts to each other and the mystery, and to act from this place. The result? More cultural and operational wholeness, greater global reach, a stronger organizational design, and greater financial stability and abundancy that will last for years to come. 

What I know in my bones is that the perspective shift from COVID-19 being an adversary to it being a co-leader was the turning point. We went from trying to control our fate as part of a VUCA world to creating with greater forces in the mystery. The experience was alive, at times very difficult, and resonant. Speaking for myself, and I think many at CTI during this time, our relationship and responsibility to our world and mystery grew our capacity to lead in today’s world. 

For better or worse, our world continues to operate from a lens of seeing challenges, including other humans and businesses, as threats, competitors, and something (or someone) to beat. This is an unwinnable game, in a world now full of unwinnable wars. It’s time for a change.  

Learning to see rapid, ambiguous change as part of the great mystery is a powerful invitation to co-lead and co-create with presence, innovation, courage, and collaboration. It offers a shift in perspective from seeing life as a battle where only the strongest survive to a journey full of purpose and meaning. If more of us embrace this Co-Active stance, new ways will emerge, and I assert we will see that Mystery favors those who choose this path forward. 


CTI trains leaders in a different way. In our Co-Active Leadership Program, leaders learn they are capable of creative, purposeful responses to the biggest challenges and mysteries of their lives. Learn more about this advanced leader development program and how it can uproot the established patterns and preconceptions that limit your leadership. We also invite you to join one of our Grow Capacity webinars, where you can learn more about Co-Active leadership in action. 

Carlo Bos Photo
Written By

Carlo Bos

Carlo is former co-CEO of CTI as well as a global faculty member. His purpose is to develop a world full of courageous and conscious leaders who fight for healthy, responsible relationships with self, others, and our planet. He has spent over two decades leading the charge to transform the experience of leadership through contextually based, experientially driven training and development. 

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