• Tom Kolditz


Updated: May 7, 2019

The term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) was first developed by the American Military to describe the uncertain conditions following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of non-state threats. In extremis leadership, also of military origin and based on research in Iraq, refers to conditions where followers believe that leaders can influence their well-being or survival. But over the years, such terminology has been resonating with an increasing number of business leaders who are navigating the ever-changing economic climate and dealing with crisis on a day-to-day basis. This brings us to an interesting question: can organizational leaders learn anything from the leaders who are constantly in a state of uncertainty and crisis? Are there any principles of exercising leadership in life-threatening environments that could be applied to business, government or whenever else teams must perform under challenging conditions?

The answer is yes. In fact, a number of key characteristics that in-extremis leaders display could be seen as common among effective leaders in general. For example, trust in a leader-follower relationship is as much a currency in the realm of business as it is in in-extremis settings. In dangerous context, trust is extremely important if the leader is to have any influence on followers, and data collected from combat environments shows that the most important determinant of trust in a crisis setting is competence. The same characteristic applies to leadership in business contexts. A leader can be many things but if he lacks competence, he will not be able to show his people the way forward in a crisis situation.

But apart from the universal traits of competence, trust and loyalty, there are many other lessons from in-extremis contexts that are applicable to business leadership while dealing with crisis, challenge and change.

Building On Motivation

In-depth analysis of crisis professionals has revealed that in-extremis contexts inherently motivate the people participating i.e. the presence of ‘danger’ spontaneously energizes those who are in it. That being said, when leaders find themselves among followers who are highly motivated for any reason, be it threat, crisis, or a tremendous opportunity, they must find ways to leverage and give direction to this motivation. Instead of sitting back, the leader should pay extra attention to precursors to learning, such as the awareness of the environment, critical thinking, and outcome analysis. For an average leader, motivation is a way to make people work harder but for an outstanding leader, motivation is a way to help people work smarter.

A Leading Personality

In extremis settings and crisis situations are quite abstruse by nature. Therefore it is not enough to merely teach specific skill sets to individuals who will work in these uncertain environments. What becomes important is that leader development goes beyond the transfer of skills to the transfer of a leader identity—making leaders what people are, not merely what they do. This means developing a character that is inextricably linked to giving purpose, motivation, and direction to others.

In-extremis leadership always comes with a tangible moral obligation. It is less about power over subordinates and more about an obligation towards people’s well-being and survival — even at the expense of the leaders themselves. The best leaders are constantly driven by that sense of purpose — not by other transactional rewards. Being purposeful is the keystone of great leadership and organizations today would benefit immensely by striving for this while developing their leaders.

Sharing Risk

Another characteristic of in-extremis leaders is that they place more value on taking care of their clients, soldiers, and citizens than they place on their own comfort, safety, or ability to accumulate wealth. The best leaders gain the most trust and loyalty by demonstrating in tangible ways that both risks and rewards are fairly distributed in the organization while the leaders bear most risk. Leaders who try to gain an advantage in such a context often create significant levels of mistrust and resentment in their subordinates.

High-risk businesses have a tremendous need to develop leaders who are truly competent and remain calm in the face of adversity. Leadership in crisis situations requires a modified approach, and the in-extremis pattern represents one of the best understandings of how leaders can meet these unique demands.


About the Writer

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Tom Kolditz

Brigadier General (Ret.) Thomas Kolditz is an internationally recognized expert on crisis leadership and leadership in extreme contexts. He is a Board Member of Linkage Inc., a global leadership development firm. A former Professor at Yale and Founding Director of the West Point Leadership Center US Military Academy, Tom currently spearheads a leadership programme designed to equip students at Rice University for real-life leadership as the Founding Director of the Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders. Tom was ranked #6 in the top 30 in the Coaching category by Global Gurus, a .org research and professional rating group. He authored the book In Extremis Leadership: Leading as if Your Life Depended on It. He is the recipient of Linkage’s Warren Bennis Award for Excellence in Leadership.

Tom Kolditz will be a keynote speaker at Linkage’s Global Institute for Leadership Development® (GILD) Asia, to be held in Singapore from 8-12 July 2019.

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