Facebook Facebook icon Twitter Twitter icon LinkedIn LinkedIn icon Email

Leading in Turbulent Times

Develop a ‘theory of the world’ to navigate turbulent times

11 January 2024 • by Patrick Reinmoeller in Leading in Turbulent Times

How defining a unique perspective, worldview, and guiding principles can help leaders to describe, explain, and predict outcomes. ...

How defining a unique perspective, worldview, and guiding principles can help leaders to describe, explain, and predict outcomes.

In turbulent times, traditional strategies alone are no longer sufficient for effective leadership. Today, navigating the complexities of the modern business landscape demands more — a proactive and informed approach, encapsulated in a well-defined “theory of the world”.

A leader’s theory of the world encompasses their unique perspective, worldview, and guiding principles within a dynamic operating environment. It forms a tapestry of beliefs, values, and assumptions, influencing how they perceive the operational dynamics, motivation of individuals, and pathways to success. From organizational culture and market dynamics to competition and innovation, a comprehensive theory of the world covers the critical facets of the business landscape.

Why is it so critical? Well, in recent decades, leaders enjoyed a period of relative stability marked by free trade and globalization. However, this era of calm has given way to a new reality characterized by several challenges. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, geopolitical tensions arising from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflationary pressures, and concerns over broader conflicts in the Middle East have ushered in turbulent times. Beyond economic fluctuations, these adversities necessitate a clear theory of the world to guide leaders in fortifying their organizations.

Described as a “polycrisis”, the current situation involves a convergence of multiple challenges, intensifying the negative impacts. It is also seen as a “permacrisis”, signifying a prolonged period of turbulence. Within this landscape, a well-crafted theory of the world becomes a crucial tool for leaders.

Facing the unknown requires a forward-looking stance. Employing “future tools” like scenario planning and a robust theory of the world provides the foundation for constructing plausible and testable ideas. Leaders can draw from their values, experiences, imagination, and ongoing learning to develop theories that enable them to describe, explain, and predict outcomes.

Major global trends, such as sustainability, geopolitics, and artificial intelligence (AI), underscore the importance of a thoughtfully constructed theory of the world. Prioritizing sustainability, for instance, shapes approaches to employing AI and navigating geopolitical challenges to address global issues like climate change.

And the influence of a theory of the world extends beyond individual domains. Concepts like capitalism, idealism, political regimes, and technology exert impact far beyond their immediate realms. Recognizing and understanding this broad influence is fundamental to effective strategic planning.

Practical application of a theory of the world involves leaders identifying priorities for themselves, their teams, and their companies. Focused attention and preparation foster alignment, cross-validation of priorities, and testing critical assumptions, ultimately enhancing resilience.

However despite their value, it’s essential to recognize the imperfections of theories. Acknowledging biases and the subjective, partial nature of our realities is vital in maintaining an accurate perspective.

Nevertheless, investing time in developing and strategically applying a theory of the world significantly improves the odds of successful leadership, particularly in today’s turbulent times. Leaders who embrace this approach empower themselves and their organizations to not only weather the storms but also emerge stronger and more resilient.


Patrick Reinmoeller - IMD Professor

Patrick Reinmoeller

Professor of Strategy and Innovation at IMD

Patrick Reinmoeller has led public programs on breakthrough strategic thinking and strategic leadership for senior executives, and custom programs for leading multinationals in fast moving consumer goods, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and energy on developing strategic priorities, implementing strategic initiatives, and managing change. More recently, his work has focused on helping senior executives and company leaders to build capabilities to set and drive strategic priorities.

More to explore

Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

Log in or register to enjoy the full experience

Explore first person business intelligence from top minds curated for a global executive audience