How to lead in a world that’s gone beyond VUCA to BANI

This month’s article is written by a special guest author – Cara McCarthy. We met about four years ago when we were both certified to use the Leadership Circle profiling tool, and have collaborated several times since then. Like me, Cara is a coach and facilitator who helps organisations develop, leaders grow, and teams be more effective.

The subject of ‘moving on from VUCA’ arose in a recent conversation, (and was very well received in a talk we prepared for a network of senior Executives), so I have invited her to share her thoughts in this area. I think this is a fascinating read! As usual, they are mixed with practical ideas you can implement in your working life, and link to related reading on the topic.

I’m sure you’ll find this information useful and look forward to your comments.


As a leader, it’s essential to think about the realities of the world we’re in so you can decide how best to show up and respond.

The concept of VUCA has been around for 40 years, since the Cold War. It’s a well-known and understood acronym:

  • V = Volatile
  • U = Uncertain
  • C = Complex
  • A = Ambiguous

According to, the recommended leadership response has been:

  • To handle volatility, create a vision
  • In uncertain contexts, generate understanding
  • To deal with complexity, create clarity around what’s known and unknown
  • In ambiguity, free your people to behave in agile ways


The futurist, Stefan Grabmeier, posits that VUCA has become so familiar and over-used that’s its lost its meaning. It’s no longer fresh and accurate. It needs an update as it doesn’t usefully describe the world as we see it today.

He proposes that the context is shifting to a new, more nuanced model – BANI. A term that grew out of the 2020 pandemic and global climate crisis.

  • B = Brittle
  • A = Anxious
  • N = Non-linear
  • I = Incomprehensible

An important element of this model is that it relates to the human reaction to the world as it is, right now.

From Volatile to Brittle

Volatile is no longer a reliable descriptor, whereas ‘Brittle‘ describes systems that appear to work well on the outside but are actually on the verge of breaking down. Brittle systems look the way they always have, but just one or two small but important disruptions can weaken them to the point where the whole system collapses like a house of cards.

Recent examples include the war in Ukraine, which has deepened global food insecurity in Continental Europe and the wider world, and caused significant ripple effects to energy supply and global trade in general.

In addition, the term ‘polycrisis’ has recently started circulating. Here’s the definition from the newly published World Economic Forum report Global Risks 2023:

“Present and future risks can also interact with each other to form a polycrisis – a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of the parts”

For more on this, you might like to read this WEF article from January 2023: We’re on the brink of a polycrisis. How worried should we be? (Link opens in a new window)

How to respond as a leader

When a system is brittle, it requires leaders to build capacity and resilience into their organisational plans, structures and cultures.

Building ‘capacity’ means leaders need to become container-builders. By ‘container’ we’re talking about a social space or environment in which people interact to achieve a shared purpose.

This includes:

  • The Board
  • Teams, and ‘teams of teams’
  • Relationships between colleagues

The leader’s role is to create and shape those social containers so they can hold difference and become spaces for learning, innovative decision-making and creativity. Effective social containers are robust and can withstand pressure, such as competing priorities, disagreements, or differences of style. They are resilient because people have the skills to navigate towards common ground and collaboration.

For more on resilience, please see the links below.

Questions to ask yourself

  • How brittle are the key ‘containers’ in your organisation? (You might be thinking about your Board, your supply network, or a project team)
  • How much integrity does it have to withstand pressure?
  • How can you help to create better clarity of purpose and quality of social engagement so this environment can contain what it needs to?

From Uncertain to Anxious

We are wired to cope with a level of uncertainty as long as we have some familiar goalposts, but now the goalposts are changing so rapidly that we know don’t where we are any more.

There was the recent pandemic, of course. But it’s more than that. We’re living in a grey zone – a term that describes the overlap between social eras. It’s a period marked by rapid change, where all rules, authorities and structures are being contested. Because we’re living in the overlap, it has resulted in much polarisation and diversity of conflicting viewpoints.

Really big things are happening so fast and on such a huge scale and on so many levels. We don’t know exactly what will replace familiar norms and institutions, and that is confusing and disorientating. As a result, people aren’t just Uncertain, the feeling has heightened to Anxiety and even to helplessness.

This is not just a momentary blip. Anxiety is here to stay. As a leader, you need to be aware of it, attend to it, and be ready for future shocks.

How to respond as a leader

Anxiety is not a momentary reaction isolated to a single individual. It can also be shared, often showing up in ways that create ripple effects for others.

When people feel anxious, they need empathy and mindfulness from their leaders. (Please scroll down to find a couple of articles that Rose has written about mindfulness.)

As for your own anxiety, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed and exhausted, you’ll find the answer in humility.

You don’t have to be the hero. One person can’t hold all the answers. Other people may have a perspective that is helpful to you or a skill you can learn from. Asking for help and letting others in can be vulnerable. But we all need each other in order to unleash the reservoirs of collective intelligence and creativity available in our workplaces.

Questions to ask yourself

As a leader, alongside cultivating strong social containers, your role is to nurture your primary resource – your people. When the environment is polarised and stressful, it shows up in reactive behaviours.

  • How is your own anxiety showing up?
  • Do you understand where your reactive behaviour comes from? Where are the limiting mental models in your own make-up?
  • How can you deal with the anxiety of others?
  • Who and what is available that you can leverage? How can you give them the platform to support you?

For a deeper dive, please see Rose’s articles on: Resilience, Leadership Agility and Change (scroll down).

From Complex to Non-linear

Things are no longer just Complex; they obey Non-linear logical systems – this is a broad area of mathematics and behavioural science and describes the world as we experience it.

In everyday language, the word complex has been diluted to mean a more complicated version of the word ‘complicated’. On the other hand, ‘non-linear’ means that causes and consequences are not knowable or assessable in advance.

This has important implications, as you can’t be sure if any individual action will be beneficial or bad.

A small decision can have a disproportionate outcome. The reverse is also true, such as when a product launch or campaign you’ve invested a lot in fizzles out because it doesn’t have the impact you hoped it would.

In a world that behaves in non-linear ways, you can’t tell what cause and effect look like. Any change will have a result but in a timeframe you can’t fully predict or plan for. It might be an immediate or delayed reaction. You can’t know in advance which it will be.

How to respond as a leader

In a non-linear world, leaders need to provide context and create the conditions for adaptivity.

Again, this means leading as host, not hero. Host leaders don’t pretend they have all the answers. They set direction, not destination. They reframe the questions. They embrace the not-knowing. They role model being inquisitive, reflective, experimental, resilient, and action-oriented.

As shapers of cultures, non-linear leaders create permissions and remove obstacles so that all who have a stake in the strategy can think well together. In adaptive environments, people feel confident to approach problems with curiosity, to test assumptions, investigate possibilities, and seek feedback. Unleashing the collective creativity and intelligence of your people will generate the adaptivity your organisation needs.

You can’t force people to take action, but you can ‘nudge’ them to do what you want. This connects to Rose’s article about Nudge theory (see link below).

“Just as a farmer cannot ‘drive’ a plant to grow faster, a leader or change maker in an organization or a community cannot force practical results. Instead attention must be focused on improving the quality of the soil. What is the quality of the social soil? It is the quality of relationships among the individuals, teams and institutions that give rise to collective behaviour and practical results.”
Source: Management Innovations: Real role of leadership

This means leading from the creative not the reactive mindset – see link below.

Questions to ask yourself

  • How are you providing context for your people?
  • Where can you see opportunities to improve the conditions so that your people can think adaptively together?
  • How can you attend to the ‘social soil’ of your relationships with others?

From Ambiguous to Incomprehensible

What was once perceived as Ambiguous has turned to Incomprehensible because events and decisions seem to lack any logical purpose.

Adding more information and data only increases the noise alongside valuable signals – the rise in AI and machine learning is rapidly increasing that reality.

How to respond as a leader

When something is incomprehensible, it demands transparency and intuition.

It’s all the more important to be transparent with your people. Tell them the information available, but also the unknowns and how you feel about that.

Work at the level of the collective ‘gut’. Trust that collective intelligence exists in your organisation and will emerge as people speak up, contribute, question, challenge, share and shape their ideas together.

Questions to ask yourself

  • How can you tune out the noise and get the most important signals?
  • How can you give permission for idea channels to arise?
  • How can you ensure ideas are explored fully?

What this means to you

As a leader, it’s worth evolving your thinking to the next stage. VUCA probably trips off the tongue. You know what it means. BANI needs the same efficacy.

If you’d like help to understand or deal with any of this, please get in touch.

Related reading

My thanks to Cara for providing such wide-ranging and thoughtful content, above. It connects with many articles that I’ve written before. These include:

Maybe you’d like to bookmark/favourite this page and revisit one link each morning for the next few weeks? That will keep you going until our next article!

Next month

How to build reflective practices and why these will enhance your leadership impact and health