New Rule: Navigate VUCA with Habits of Mind

By Bill Sommers

So, as I sit here in my home under COVID19 stay at home restrictions, one question keeps reverberating with me in how to lead during this time:

How do we respond in a VUCA world that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon?”

When I was a principal, a quote posted in my office served as a reminder to continuously challenge myself and others in this VUCA environment.

If you doubt the truth in that quote, you have never been a high school principal with 2000-3000 students. I found that creating a rich learning environment always included students.

My reasoning is:

  • There are more students than staff.
  • Students typically see problems from a different perspective that can energize creativity and flexibility that are certainly needed during this time.

I learned how to create a safe learning environment from our students and I appreciate every one of them. For example, as a principal I watched carefully planned programs designed to stop behaviors often foster adolescent creativity in finding ways to beat the system. Instead of adults creating the policies, 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 game the procedure. This usually took about fifteen minutes for them to tell me how to beat the plan. It saved me lots of time, energy, and staff unhappiness. Then I would ask what they might suggest to help solve the problem the school was addressing.

Empowering Student Voice and Leadership in Response to a VUCA World

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.

VUCA Elements Related Habits Student Leadership Actions
Volatility. We need to revisit our school vision to make certain that it has been able to withstand the volatility of COVID19. It is a time to make certain that there is a timeless vision of core values and mission.  What will change is the ways we operationalize that vision through our actions. We don’t know what steps we will be taking but we know the direction we are going toward.

Managing Impulsivity: Thinking about the time, energy, money, and emotional costs of getting into a situation without thinking about the long-term consequences.

Taking Responsible Risks: 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.


  • What is our school vision? (Vision, Mission, Core Values)
  • How might the crisis change how we operate and act on our vision?
Uncertainty. We like certainty. Change can be very disconcerting and disruptive to our daily routines. Karen Clark suggests, “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.

Listening with Understanding & Empathy: Listening to others to better understand their perspective and help clarify their own thinking increases a positive relationship which can provide even more learning from others.

Thinking Interdependently: We work in systems — no job is totally isolated from others and we need to include diverse perspectives locally, nationally, and globally. We need to think both short-term and long-term, as we imagine the future.


How can we include more perspectives from our student population? Who is not usually heard?

How can we test  the impact of our suggestions on the system?

Complexity. In order to clarify the problem we are addressing, we need to keep our goals to operationalize the vision in mind. 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.

Questioning & Problem Posing: Clarifying the problem is the first step. Questions 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.

Thinking & Communicating with Clarity & Precision: A lack of clarity often is due to fuzzy thinking. The more precise the language, the better the communication.


How can we use students as interviewers? It helps if they plan for the questions, learn to listen carefully, and analyze the results for patterns and trends.

Ambiguity. We can start with what is known but equally important is to discover  what we are aware we don’t know, and what is undiscovered that is yet to be known. Be agile enough to look around at trends and be alert to signals that might be indicating a need to change.

Thinking Flexibly: Mary Catherine Bateson (1989) said, “Life is improvisation.” We can’t see around the corner and anticipate every possible event. Creativity and flexibility help us survive and thrive in all kinds of places.

Creating, Imagining, & Innovating: Disney calls a group on their staff “Imagineers.”  We need to take advantage of this time to re-engineer our learning environments with the imagineers of our school communities.


Where are the opportunities for our students to learn to live with ambiguity?

When can we invite the students to become imagineers?

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. She said, “If your job is waking up the dead, GET UP, TODAY IS A WORKDAY.”

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

Art and Bena’s Habits of Mind books, website, and additional resources can be found at Each provide 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

William A. Sommers, Ph.D. of Austin, Texas, continues to be a learner, teacher, principal, author, leadership coach, and consultant for multiple educational groups. He is also a certified Stakeholder Centered Coach with the Marshall Goldsmith Group. He was on the Board of Trustees for five years and President of the National Staff Development Council now called Learning Forward.

Dr. Sommers has been on several university faculties, has been a program director for an adolescent chemical dependency treatment center Bill has co-authored over ten books.

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