Navigate VUCA with Habits of Mind

I first encountered the term VUCA when reading Bob Johansen’s book (2007) Get There Early. As I tried to understand the concept of a world that was undergoing major shifts and confusion,

VUCA made sense to me.  VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

I strongly suggest you apply these four concepts to your situation and see if they fit whether it be a family, company, or social agency. I found this graphic on the internet.

Education, and the world for that matter, has been dealing with the left side of this graphic for a long time. In my opinion, it doesn’t seem to be getting much better as viewed from the national or global perspective.

I do want to give a shout out to Ted Dintersmith and his book titled What School Could Be (2018).  Ted found schools in all fifty states that we’re attracting and retaining students with relevant education.  Dintersmith and Tony Wagner co-authored Most Like To Succeed (2015) to identify successful indicators for students and schools.  I recommend both of these books as resources to deal with VUCA on the left side.


So, as I sit here in my home under house arrest (COVID19 isolation), the question that haunts me is ‘how do we respond in a VUCA world that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon?’ I remembered a quote I made up and posted in my office, ‘Constraints Cause Creativity.’  If you doubt that, you have never been a high school principal with 2000-3000 students.  First, there are more students than staff.  Second, collectively students are more creative and mobile than the professionals. Third, we need student leadership as well as staff leadership to make a school great.  I am sure there are other lessons.

What I learned from bartending in the 60s and 70s is ‘every system can be beaten.’  I watched bartenders beat machines limiting overpouring, bartenders giving away drinks to get tips, and flat out stealing by not ringing up every sale.  As a principal, I have watched carefully-planned programs to stop students from skipping classes and sidelined by supervisors who bow to political pressure. Policies of locking doors to keep the school safety were beaten by the creativity of the students. In my later years, I would assemble my best student game players, those students who were experts at beating the system, and asked them to help me.  I told the students what I was planning and asked them to tell me how they would beat the procedure.  This usually took about fifteen minutes. It saved me lots of time, energy, and staff unhappiness.  Of course, then I would ask what they might suggest helping the school?  I have learned from our students and I appreciate every one of them. I must admit this learning wasn’t always pleasant but I needed it.

How do we get to get to the right side of VUCA?  We want Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility to successfully navigate these difficult times. As a long-time friend and colleague of Art Costa and Bena Kallick, a trainer in Habits of Mind, and having lots of practical experience I offer my current thinking.  Apply the Habits of Mind to get from the left side to the right side of the VUCA diagram.  I have put four of the habits in each of the four parts of VUCA.  I know that many of the habits will fit in different places, so this is a place to start.  Feel free to make it workable for you and your situation.

Art and Bena’s Habits of Mind books, website, and additional resources can be found at  Each provides strategies and actions that can be used in classrooms and adapted for building leadership skills.  Another resource is Karen Tui Boyes in New Zealand.  Karen creates resources that can be found at

Here is my adapted graphic to guide my thinking on how to navigate the existing VUCA work to move toward a more productive VUCA.

Navigating VUCA with Habits of Mind

     VUCA                                                           Habits of Mind                                        VUCA + HOM

Volatility                                                                                                                           Vision


Managing Impulsivity


Taking Responsible Risks


Uncertainty                                                                                                                    Understanding

Listening with Understanding & Empathy

Thinking & Communicating with Clarity & Precision

Remaining Open to Continuous Learning

Thinking Interdependently


Complexity                                                                                                                   Clarity

Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations

Finding Humor

Questioning & Problem Posing

Striving for Accuracy


   Ambiguity                                                                                                                 Agility

Thinking Flexibly

Gathering Data through all your Senses

Creating, Imagining, & Innovating

Responding with Wonderment & Awe

Volatility to Vision

The current COVID19 is the latest event that is causing us to change in many areas.  Those who think we will be going back to normal (whatever that is) soon are kidding themselves.  Think about hurricanes, wars, viruses, global financial issues, etc.  Chief Seattle said years ago, “everything is connected.”  Even when going to the moon, the spacecraft is off course much of the time.  AND, going to the moon is easier because we can see where we are going.

That is why vision is so important.  I sometimes ask people I am coaching, ‘you have spent a lot of time telling me what you don’t want.  Let’s spend some time identifying what you do want.’ From my experience, if you can’t define the goal or the problem, you can’t solve it. So, what do you want?  We may determine multiple ways to get there but to reduce fear, anger, and volatility we need a vision for what we want.  As Lewis Carroll said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

Habits that might help at this stage are:

  • Persisting – when the vision is meaningful it keeps us focused on the desired future. Staying on track helps get to our goal. Ray Kroc of McDonalds said, and I paraphrase, ‘persistence is more important than talent or education.’
  • Managing Impulsivity – I am impulsive, I admit it. I want to get going with action.  I am better than I used to be but still react impulsively to get into action.  My former colleague, Jane Stevenson would say I had to promise to sit for two minutes after she told what the problem was before I could leave my chair. She knew me well. There is a Chinese Proverb I try to remember:  It is easier to stay out than get out.  Think about the time, energy, money, and emotional costs of getting into a situation without thinking about the long-term consequences.  It is my character defect and I will always have to try to tame it.
  • Metacognition – Thinking about our thinking can help in that we generally react based on previous successful ideas. Once we learn other ways to think about issues, we can create multiple ways of framing an issue and know working with a diversity of ideas and people can help increase metacognition leading to better decisions.
  • Taking Responsible Risks – John Shedd was quoted as saying, ‘ships in harbor are safe but that is not what ships are built for.’ Trying new things, wanting to accomplish new goals, and finding more effective ways to reach our vision involves leaving what may be comfortable and taking a risk.  Yes, failure is an option.  Smart people learn from what doesn’t work as well as what does.  Trammel Crow said, ‘there is as much risk in doing something as doing nothing.’

Uncertainty to Understanding

Most of us like certainty.  The sun does come up every day (so far).  The world is getting more diverse in many ways. Change can be very disconcerting to people.  One of my favorite quotes is from Karen Clark, “Life is change, growth is optional, choose wisely.”  Problems will continue to arise in our life.  The only control is how we respond to them.

Habits that might help at this stage are:

  • Listening with Understanding & Empathy – When we listen to others, they tell us what they think and sometimes what beliefs drive those thoughts. Empathy increases a positive relationship which can provide even more learning from others. We share more with people we trust.
  • Thinking & Communicating with Clarity & Precision – Asking questions that clarify my thinking usually causes more clarity on the part of the other person. The more precise the language, the better the communication.
  • Thinking Interdependently – We work in systems. I can’t think of any jobs that are totally isolated.  At some point, we work and live with others.  Others give us ideas, energy, perspective, and if we think both short-term and long-term, we are able to see future consequences.  School staff is interdependent with students, colleagues, and parents. We don’t operate in a vacuum.
  • Remaining Open to Continuous Learning – We need repertoire. The more strategies we learn, share with colleagues, and help students at different levels, the better we are prepared for the challenges ahead.  I don’t know anyone who thinks we will be less diverse, have fewer problems to manage, or that we can sit still while the world changes.  Our learning might be at an X = Y line (ok I taught physics and math).  I believe we need at least an X = Y2 or maybe X = Y

Complexity to Clarity

Life and problems are complex.  One way to deal with complexity is to separate the problem into parts.  Sometimes that works against us because so many problems are interconnected.  Changing one part can create unintended consequences in another part. This is why clarification of the issue is so critical.  Making sure we keep the goals in mind, like vision, helps us make positive progress.  Quick feedback loops are important to know what leading indicators can foreshadow results.  Leading indicators, or formative assessments, give us a chance to change before final results.  State test data in May or June are lagging indicators and make it too late to make adjustments.

Habits that might help at this stage are:

  • Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations – Past behavior can be helpful. Here are a few examples. Hand Grenade technology was used for airbags in cars. Removing burrs from a dog led to Velcro.  Seeing new applications for existing problems can provide some solutions. I want to be around people who see something I don’t. Then, I learn.
  • Finding Humor – Humor has been shown to help creativity. There are techniques like Synectics and Improv that can help unleash creative thinking. Humor is sometimes connecting disconnected information.
  • Questioning & Problem Posing – Clarifying the problem is the first step. Questions will help this process.  Questions also can surface assumptions, both positive and negative, to help clarify the goal.  Unquestioned assumptions often lead to unintended consequences. When I hear, ‘it’s always been that way’ I know there are unquestioned assumptions at work.  See Robert Marshak’s book Covert Processes at Work (2006).
  • Striving for Accuracy – This is where data can be extremely helpful. The caution is, focus on the data that is relevant.  Too often we drink from a fire hose.  What data will help us know we are getting closer to a solution or farther away.  I recommend the book by Frank & Magnone. Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making smarter decisions without drowning in information (2011)..

Ambiguity to Agility

In working with Scenario Planning processes we start with what is known, what we know we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know.  Yikes.  I can’t find the quote but I know I heard something like, ‘the future does not hit you in the forehead, it always hits you in the temple.’  Be agile enough to look around at trends.  General Shinseki said, “If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance a lot less.” This applies to so many current systems.

  • Thinking Flexibly – Mary Catherine Bateson (1989) said, “Life is improvisation.” The longer I live, the more I believe this. I can’t see around the corner and anticipate every possible event.  This is why I say repertoire and the ability to use that repertoire is so important in education and life.  My work in urban environments has reaffirmed my belief that creativity and flexibility will help survive and thrive in all kinds of places. Thank you to my former students for teaching me this.  I am better for it.
  • Gathering Data through all your Senses – I will never forget a story Art Costa told me over thirty years ago. When filming the movie Ordinary People, the director said to the cinematographers, ‘go find a place that looks like this song sounds like.’  The song, of course, was Pachelbel’s Canon.  Checking our five senses can lead to additional ideas.  We all have heard about visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.  Don’t forget the Olfactory and Gustatory senses. You might smell a rat or taste a bitter pill.
  • Creating, Imagining, & Innovating – As we think about the future, this Habit of Mind will become even more important. How has technology progressed so quickly and made such an impact?  How has the medical field saved more lives and prevented many diseases?  I love the Disney name for some of there staff, Imagineers.  I really bristle when someone says, ‘we can’t do this’ or ‘we can’t do it with these kids.’    Teams can and will.  See the reference to Dintersmith’s book.
  • Responding with Wonderment & Awe – Finishing with this habit seems so right. As I look back over forty plus years in education, I am grateful for the heroes and sheroes that I have worked within schools and projects.  Stopping to reflect and focus on how far we have come is important.  One of my first principals, Dr. Ken Northwick, told me in 1971 that I never stop to smell the roses.  He was right then and I still have trouble slowing down.  I have seen staff and kids turn schools into caring communities with learning and social action as a driver.  I have learned so much from colleagues and kids.

Yes, we have done some great things. Yes, we have lots to do ahead as the VUCA left can overwhelm us.  I am suggesting with the Habits of Mind we can address VUCA right and be in a better place.  I end this with two quotes. Angeles Arrien was committed to a better world and community. I was fortunate to learn from her while she was alive.

Art Costa told me a Kermit the Frog quote years ago.  Art has been my learning guide for over thirty-five years.

  1. Angeles Arrien – “If your job is waking up the dead, GET UP, TODAY IS A WORKDAY.”
  2. Kermit the Frog – “Somebody thought of it, and someone believed it and look what it’s done so far.”



Bateson, M.  (1989).  Composing a life.  New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Costa, A. & Kallick, B. (20xx). Habits of Mind.  Alexandria, VA:  ASCD

Dintersmith, Ted. (2018). What School Could Be.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press.

Frank, C. & Magnone, P. (2011). Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making smarter decisions

            without drowning in information. London: Penguin.

Johansen, Bob. (2007). Get There Early.  San Francisco:  Berrett-Kohler.

Marshak, R. (2006). Covert processes at work.  San Francisco:  Berrett-Kohler.

Wagner, Tony & Dintersmith, Ted. (2015). Most Likely to Succeed.

New York: Scribner



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