We were already in the midst of VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) times. Then COVID hit. Now it’s VUCA 2.0 given COVID’s very real economic and mental health ripples. So the question is, “How to flourish as a leader despite mounting uncertainty?”  

This is Melissa’s realm of expertise.  

In this episode, Melissa unpacks how VUCA affects leaders. She talks about the mistakes leaders make, the importance of slowing down, and shares valuable insights that you can apply to remain intact, navigate through VUCA and be the leader your organization, your people, and this world needs you to be. 

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. 

Get a copy of her leadership ebook at https://melissaeisler.com/leadership-ebook-leaders-guide-vuca/  

What you will learn from this episode: 

  • Understand what VUCA is and how to navigate it 
  • Discover the power of pause 
  • Find out how to develop resilience and adaptability – the competencies you need  

To really answer the question of how do you know when I’m navigating VUCA effectively or what’s the best thing I could do, I would recommend assessing what impact your state of being has on people.”  

Melissa Eisler

Topics Covered:

02:11 – The biggest challenge leaders face in business today. 

04:26 – Self inquiry, the feedback loop, and the mistakes leaders are making despite knowing that they need not to stay still in this changing world. 

08:02 – An actionable step leaders can undertake to develop resilience. 

09:43 – How to develop one’s curiosity? 

11:54 – Actionable tips and Melissa’s go to’s that absolutely work in terms of building leadership presence. 

13:50 – Melissa’s free Leadership eBook and the 5Cs of her leadership framework that paved way for it. 

15:50 – What is the VUCA challenge asking of you, or what kind of leader is that asking you to be? Buddhist teacher and author Thich Nhat Hanh and his story. 

19:45 – Melissa’s final message. 

Key Takeaways:

“As a leader, if you show up frazzled, anxious, and worn out by the unknown, letting your nervous system get the best of you, others are going to feel that too, and then everyone in the organization ends up unproductive and stressed as a result. If you show up a steady during change in volatility, others follow suit and feel at ease by your steadiness. It’s the leaders’ job to help others to the groundlessness of VUCA.” 

“Learning how to lead is a process and a mindset, and there’s not one book you could just read or step you can take to learn how to become better. You got to do the inner work, and the answers aren’t in a book. They’re through a process, and usually it starts with self inquiry.” 

“I think that sounds a little bit paradoxical and maybe even cliche, but if you slow down and pause and give yourself space to be more intentional and to inquire more about what it is about the challenge, you learn a lot more about not just the situation you’re in, but how it’s affecting the system as a whole.” 

“It isn’t what you do. It’s how you are being that is most important.” 

Connect with Melissa Eisler:

Full Episode Transcript:

Melissa Eisler 

To really answer the question of how do you know when I’m navigating VUCA effectively or what’s the best thing I could do, I would recommend assessing what impact your state of being has on people. 

Bruce Ross  

Hello and a very warm welcome to another edition of Unshakable Leadership. My name is Bruce Ross, and it’s my privilege to have the highly-regarded Melissa Eisler with us here today. Melissa, a very warm welcome to you. Whereabouts in the world are you?  

Melissa Eisler 

Thank you, Bruce. Nice to be here. I’m calling in from San Diego, California.  

Bruce Ross 

Fantastic. So, a little bit of background on Melissa.  

Melissa partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual team and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world with her Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. And absolutely, we’ve got challenges and change on steroids at the moment. I think there’s a phrase that captures that. I think it’s called VUCA, V-U-C-A. Tell us more about that. 

Melissa Eisler 

Exactly. Yes. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and yes, certainly, the world is no stranger to VUCA at the moment. 

Bruce Ross 

Yeah. I heard that it originally came out of the military, that when they went to a firefight, things went VUCA, but now it’s happening in everyday life.  

Melissa Eisler 

You know, it’s been a problem in leadership challenges for decades, but right now, you know, 2020 took VUCA to the next level of difficult, right?  

Bruce Ross 

Yeah. Absolutely.  

So, I’m intrigued. From all of your experience as a leader, plus your experience as a leadership coach, what’s the biggest challenge that you have leaders face in business today? 

Melissa Eisler  

Well, yeah. Bruce, it’s just this. I help leaders steer themselves and their teams through change in VUCA conditions, and I think this is particularly hard because humans typically do not feel comfortable when circumstances are unknown and unpredictable and changing, and this discomfort can show up as stress and a lack of clarity, and an inability to make decisions, and as communication breakdowns, and for leaders, these symptoms are very dangerous because the reactions to change and uncertainty can really influence others and the systems they lead. 

You know, as a leader, if you show up frazzled and anxious and worn out by the unknown, letting your nervous system get the best of you, others are going to feel that too and then everyone in the organization ends up unproductive and stressed as a result, which can have a really negative ripple effect they end up creating in your organization.  

And if you show up a steady during change in volatility, others follow suit and feel at ease by your steadiness. You know, knowing a confident leader is captaining the ship, I guess. And it just really invites a better way for everyone to be. You know, when a leader leads from their shadow, the rest of the organization assumes that that is how it should be. When a leader leads from their streams, again, the rest of the organization assumes that that is how it should be.  

So, the biggest challenge I help leaders with is getting more comfortable with the discomfort and within not knowing, to develop their leadership presence so they can move through changes, move through challenges with more ease and steadiness. You know, we work a lot on developing resilience so they can show up for those they lead. It’s the leaders’ job. I think it’s the leaders’ job to help others to the groundlessness of VUCA, and I believe if you can do that well, you can have a really positive ripple effect on your organization and its culture, you know. 

Bruce Ross 

So, I’m sure this is no news. VUCA’s no news, change – massive tumultuous change is no news, and what you’re saying, probably, is no news to leaders. They know they needed to not be the still place in everyone else’s changing world and they’ll be attempting to do as you say. But what are the mistakes they’re making? 

Melissa Eisler 

Yeah, great question. There are a couple things I see that are really common here.  

One mistake I see is that clients expect a quick fix or playbook for developing their leadership skills, and you know, I don’t believe there is a step-by-step process that suits everyone on how to be an effective leader, especially during VUCA times. My belief is that learning how to lead is a process and a mindset, and there’s not one book you could just read or step you can take to learn how to become better. You got to do the inner work, and the answers aren’t in a book. They’re through a process, and usually it starts with self inquiry. And leaders often hate that answer. You know, this is where, again, the discomfort with the unknown can really show up.  

It’s not easy or comfortable to unpack the layers of who you are and how you fall short, but it is essential in leadership development, and it would be much faster if you or I – any consultant or mentor or coach – gave you the answers, right? Which is why I think so many people look externally for the answers and they make that mistake. It would just be a lot easier and faster. It just doesn’t work though. 

Bruce Ross  

So tell us more about the self inquiry. You said that’s actually the pivot point. That’s when the door gets opened into a new level of capability. Tell us more about that. 

Melissa Eisler  

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s really about cultivating self awareness to know when you’re off track and self awareness to know what works well to bring you back on track and back to your center, and back to the point where you’re able to, you know, think clearly again, if we’re talking about VUCA. The strategies are really going to be different depending on who you are, but the approach of, you know, consistent self reflection to better understand how you move through uncertainty, things like developing a feedback loop so you can gain diverse and honest perspectives as far as uncovering your blind spots – these are things that are really going to make a big difference in leadership development. 

Bruce Ross  

Tell us more about the feedback loop. You said developing a feedback loop. 

Melissa Eisler  

Yeah, absolutely. So that could be anything from a 360 degree feedback process where you’re, you know, garnering anonymous feedback from the people you work with, the people you most spend time with. It could be anything from developing a relationship with mentors and coaches who are able to give you direct feedback. You can put together a whole board of personal board of directors.  

I often, you know, guide my clients to do which is not people who meet regularly together but people who you trust and who are going to give you candid feedback. You know, I lead. I do a lot of group coaching and participants act just as that for one another, for giving one another direct feedback on how they’re being. And so, yeah. It’s really helpful to get objective feedback 

Bruce Ross  

Multiple perspectives. Yeah.  

Melissa Eisler  

I always say people who are much older than you, people who are much younger than you, people who are in the same industry as you, people who are in other industries is as diverse as you can get. 

Bruce Ross  

Got it. Okay. So, other mistakes – you said that the consideration is there. It’s an easy fix, but you’re saying no, they’re self inquiry, we’ve got a couple of tips around that. What are some other actionable steps a leader can undertake to improve their resilience? 

Melissa Eisler  

Particularly during VUCA times you’re asking, I’m assuming. 

Bruce Ross  

Yeah. Well, I think going forward, there will be a different version of VUCA, it won’t be a COVID oriented. It will be a…but, yes, it will carry. 

Melissa Eisler  

Yeah, it’s a great question. Well, I think one of the competencies I would point to develop – to build resilience especially during VUCA conditions, VUCA times, would be adaptability. I think rigidity in VUCA times is toxic; it can be really toxic.  

So, you know, leaders have to be able to really pay attention to the nuances of the moment, and that involves deep listening. And I think that’s a competence that every leader should really learn to develop to be able to not only listen to the problems underneath the surface, but also be able to make decisions and form strategies and sometimes completely pivot based on context. That’s such an important thing to build.  

And that may mean, you know, adaptability to me means everything from being able to admit that you’re wrong and admit that you don’t know the answer or don’t know the solution. I think a big part of being adaptable is being curious and open to looking for something beyond your thinking at the moment. A better solution. New possibilities to the challenge you’re in. And this is all related to learning to be adaptable and flexible. You know, whether it’s in your leadership approach, or your business model, or your dealings with others, you know, adaptability is just key, and I would say that the attitude or mindset of curiosity is probably the most helpful tool to develop this competency of adaptability. 

Bruce Ross  

This may sound like an odd question because on the face of it and the taking greater curiosity could seem self-evident, but how does one improve one’s curiosity? 

Melissa Eisler  

I think there are a few things you can do. One is slowing down, and I think that sounds a little bit paradoxical and maybe even cliche, but if you slow down and pause and give yourself space to be more intentional and to inquire more about what it is about the challenge, you learn a lot more. You know, you learn a lot more about not just the situation you’re in, but how it’s affecting the system as a whole, which is really important. And when you’re able to slow down and really get curious about every little element of the challenge you’re in, you can make much more strategic decisions. You’re going to be more discerning in, you know, which areas you’re focusing on. And I think that space allows is the best thing you can do to really invite that curiosity and develop that inquisitive mind. 

Bruce Ross  

Got it. So, see. There are a couple things, there was the slowing down. Was there something else to improve curiosity? 

Melissa Eisler  

Disruption tolerance increasing your threshold for intolerance. So, that’s really developing your ability to take risks, which involves creativity and being more comfortable in the unknown. Because when you’re creative and when you’re more tolerant to disruption and taking risks, it really means you’re more comfortable sitting with the unknown. If you’re forging ahead with even just processes or new ideas, you’re not going to know the end of it because if they’re new, no one’s done it before, at least not in your organization or in your, you know, experienced that. And so, new ideas. This is why creativity is. It takes a certain kind of person to really step into innovative and creative ideas because they have to have some level of comfort with uncertainty to take risks. Yeah, it’s all related to curiosity. 

Bruce Ross  

Okay. And are there any other actionable tips you recommend? Maybe your go to’s. The ones that, you know, absolutely work in terms of building leadership presence, as an example. 

Melissa Eisler  

Yeah, there are lots of practices. I mean my go to’s are mindfulness and meditation. It works really well for me to develop my ability to sit with the unknown, but then it’s really learning what, this is related to self awareness too. Just learning what works best for you to settle your nervous system during stress and during VUCA times and during the times of the, you know, what things are unknown, when factors are unknown.  

There are so many practices out there. I mean, I think keeping yourself on a good sleep schedule, consistent routines is super helpful. Making sure you’re well nourished, making sure you’re exercising and you’re able to think clearly. So, what are those things for you? Do you have go to? Practices for yourself first. 

Bruce Ross  

I do. Oh God, an unforced one. So, I do ultra long distance running, trial runs, and so there are events that say you’ve got to prepare. So that’s like an unforced. 

Melissa Eisler  

Absolutely! Well, I’m a runner too and I tell you, it’s such a mindfulness practice for me and I get into that state of flow. So you might even think for yourself, for the listeners here, you know, what are the activities that get me into that flow state and help me be really present where, you know, I’m not thinking about all of the stresses of my day? I’m in the moment. I’m being really present. And those things could be, it could be anything, you know, like a lot of people. I live in Southern California so surfing is a big thing here and a lot of people say they’re in the zone when they’re surfing or running or, you know, some people it’s meditating, some people it’s yoga, some people it’s knitting. I don’t know. What is it for you? Learn what that is to settle your mind and help you be present. 

Bruce Ross  

Absolutely. Is there a free resource you can recommend our listeners if they’re looking to get more information around this? Is there something that you’ve produced or a free resource that’s available? What would you recommend? 

Melissa Eisler  

Yeah! Well, I actually recently just wrote an ebook. It’s now free on my website, so I’m sure you can link to it in the shownotes or something, but it’s called “A Leaders Guide to Navigating VUCA: Exploring the 5C Leadership Framework” and the ebook includes research and anecdotes about essential capacities you need to thrive as a leader during times of change and uncertainty, which is just what we’re talking about, but where the benefit really comes in in the book is through the practices and exercises throughout the book. So, it includes 10 different practices and worksheets. So, the really practical things you’re asking me about, there’s a lot more there. And it will really help coach you through how you are currently leading in VUCA times, and what you could be doing better.  

So the book is built on the conceptual framework I developed years ago called The 5C Leadership Framework in VUCA Times, and it includes five pillars for leaders to focus on. To find more steadiness during groundless circumstances.  

Bruce Ross  

And those 5Cs? 

Melissa Eisler  

Good question. Centering, which is, you know, just what we’re talking about. Mindfulness. Being able to be present when you’re at work, essentially.  

Curiosity, which we’ve talked a lot about. How to step into that really curious, open place and presence.  

Consistent routines. So, consistent routines is, you know, again, it can look a number of different ways, but it’s all about setting anchors in your day. So when, you know, the rug is lifted out from you and you’re in the middle of chaos during VUCA time, it’s really helpful to find some anchors and consistency. 

Connection, which is all about finding different people and ways to really connect with one another, and there’s lots of different ways to do that, of course. Figuring out what works for you.  

And then coaching. So getting leadership coach, which in the framework it shows that it’s a pillar of its own, but it’s also very supportive in helping you develop all of the other pillars in the framework. 

Bruce Ross  

Now, last question. What’s the question I should have asked you in this regard? 

Melissa Eisler  

Yeah. So main question is left for that we could explore, right? But one I get a lot is how does a leader know when they’re navigating VUCA effectively? Or you know, what’s the right way or what are the right steps to manage uncertainty? What do you have to do? And as you know, the coach I am, I’ll respond with a question which is, what is the VUCA challenge or moment asking of you, or what kind of leader is that asking you to be? Or what do your people really need you to be? And when I talk about this topic, I always like to bring up, are you familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh?  

Bruce Ross  

No. 

Melissa Eisler  

He’s a brilliant wise Buddhist teacher and author, and he shares a story about small crowded boats that cross the Gulf of Siam in Vietnam regularly that I think illustrates the powerful impact that one calm person can have on a group of people in the middle of a chaotic time. And if you don’t mind, I’ll read it because I don’t want to butcher it. It’s just three sentences.  

When the crowded refugee boats met with storms or pirates. If everyone panics, all would be lost. But if even one person stayed calm, it was enough.  

It shows the way for everyone to survive, and I just think there’s, you know, a beautiful lesson here that demonstrates the power and positive impact of one person’s way of being in crisis. You know, it isn’t what you do. It’s how you are being that is most important.  

And I think, to really answer the question of how do you know when I’m navigating VUCA effectively or what’s the best thing I could do, I would recommend assessing what impact your state of being has on people. Think. You know, you can think back to the times where you were most present and engaged and connected in conversations with your team and how really, you know, take it. Take a look at it and consider how you were showing up or how you were being, you know, when you were most effective, when people were most receptive with you, when they were most engaged with you, when your team was in flow. So, take a look at how people were reacting to you, how were you – as the leader – setting that tone or providing that foundation. And I think there’s a lot you can learn from the moments when you were truly present with others and how you can maybe, you know, apply this to create a more of a positive impact during VUCA times, during the chaotic times when your team needs you the most.  

And one thing I will also say is that, of course leaders are going to most often think about their employees and teams during VUCA times, you know. That’s sort of the first place they go when they bring up challenges. But if you get the answer right and if you’re able to really learn from the times when you’re most present and connected with other people, you’re going to show up, not just at work in the right ways, but you’re also going to show up with your family and friends and your, you know, your loved ones in a much more positive way – a much more stabilizing way in times like these, for example. 

Bruce Ross  

Excellent. How do you know if you’re doing well is the self reflection and the ability to move back into that centered state. 

Melissa Eisler  

Yeah, and so pay attention to how others perceive you and the impact you have on them. 

Bruce Ross  

That’s right, because that’s whether it’s effective or not. Yeah, it makes absolute sense. Excellent.  

So this has been great! It’s been very rich. It’s got a great sprinkling of practicality and also, especially with your ebook, people can go further and read into more. We’ve covered off a little bit of curiosity, but we’re still going to find out more about connection and so on. So I’d highly recommend our listeners to do that and that information will be in the shownotes beneath.  

While very last question unscripted is what’s the final message you’d like to leave our listeners with as we complete or conclude this podcast? 

Melissa Eisler  

Yeah, final message. I think, don’t underestimate the power of pausing and discerning, you know, taking a more strategic focus of what you should be focusing on in a moment, because so often we run to what you want to do versus how you’re going to be. And if you give yourself that space, you know, right now, I think, especially in the time we’re in, we’re all running in so many directions and it’s very easy to get burnt out. But again, it sounds paradoxical, but if you’re able to slow down and really pay attention to what the moment needs of you, you’re going to end up being more productive and more strategic. It sounds like the opposite would be true, and it’s absolutely not. And as a side effect, you’re also going to have much better relationships and a much more positive impact than those around you right now too. 

Bruce Ross  

Fantastic. The power of the pause, yes.  

So, the rest of this has been fantastic. It’s been thorough and comprehensive, and in some occasions, going quite deep. So, again, I would highly recommend our listeners. Read the shownotes, reach out to Melissa, certainly get her ebook, and on behalf of myself and our listeners, I’d like to thank you very much. 

Melissa Eisler  

Thanks, Bruce. It’s nice chatting with you.  

Bruce Ross  

Thanks very much for checking out Flowpreneur Unshakable Leadership podcast. If you like what we’re doing here, please head on over to iTunes, subscribe, rate us, and leave a review. We’d very much appreciate that.  

Now, if you’re actually wanting to expand your leadership capability and deepen your impact in a world that is the better you both at work and home, then I invite you to attend a live online Flowpreneur demo where I’ll be sharing a pure content and they’ll be nothing to buy. You can find all the details for this at www.peakperformancedemo.com, repeating, www.peakperformancedemo.com  

Until next time. Be bold. 

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