How do you lead with a clear mind and a compassionate heart while the foundations of your business
are being shaken to their core? How do you respond when your worldview is being challenged and you
are scrambling to adapt your business model to a new, unknown reality? Insightful leaders adapt and
help others to do the same. But how?
It was 28 April 2020, four days before South Africa moved to
Level 4 on the lockdown schedule. After five punishing weeks
at Level 5, the property industry was under pressure with the
FNB Property Barometer noting a 40% transaction decline in
the first quarter. The National Property Practitioners Council, a
newly-formed body representing 40,000-plus agents, brokers
and professionals, responded by motivating to reopen the
struggling sector under Level 4. While the call did not materialise,
it highlighted the leadership approach of NPPC chairperson,
At a time when the fractured industry was under pressure and
hungry for leadership, Mutshekwane stepped up to the plate
deliberately and with appreciation for the complexities of the
situation. “We recognise the enormous task of ensuring the
health and safety of society while meeting the needs of industry,
and fully support the Risk Adjusted Strategy for Economic
Activity. However, government should prioritise the reopening
of those industries that can be classified as low transmission risk
and high economic contribution such as the real estate sector,”
An advocate for transformation and unity, Mutshekwane
provided a single voice for the multiple stakeholders across the
property sector, taking on the role of bridge builder. Just like
New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, she communicated clearly and empathetically, putting ego aside. It was a clear
example of adaptive leadership in action.
From crisis to agility
In the face of unprecedented disruption, leaders are initially
called on to adopt a crisis-facing, responsive stance, but as the
calamity matures, immediate crisis thinking must give way to a
more complex adaptive leadership style. Many leaders battle with
this switch and find the transition from easy-to-identify technical
problems to dealing with complex, hard-to-identify adaptive
challenges difficult since these ‘solutions’ take time, require
learning, experimentation and buy-in from all involved.
Many leaders already display characteristics of adaptive
leadership, such as the ability to model behaviours, to lead
from the front, and to display both empathy and decisiveness.
These traits were all highlighted strongly by 19 Coaching@GIBS
experts and faculty polled for their views on vital leadership
characteristics during the Covid-19 crisis.
The results of this poll also focused on an ability to make sense
of new information quickly by tapping into a variety of sources
and then distilling complex ideas into accessible communication.
The ability to act now, but with the future in mind, was another
As one of our experts observed: “Balance the need
to keep learning, absorbing, gaining additional perspectives
and information, with the need to be decisive and give concrete
direction to people.”
Being sensitive to the psychological impact of unfolding events
on others also featured strongly, tapping into important
characteristics such as humanity, self-awareness and empathy.
Comments that resonated with us included: “Be aware of the
mental health implications of the crisis and put in place measures that help employees and families cope. Ensure ‘connectedness’ so
people don’t go through this alone.” Or, “Have places, or people,
you can go to in order to ‘be human’ and express your own anxieties
safely.” Or, “Manage your inner state with self-care – you will know
what you need, such as exercise, mindfulness or reading.”
Taken together, the multiple perspectives shared by the
Coaching@GIBS team reinforced the value of getting off the
dance floor and taking a balcony view of the problems at hand.
Mutshekwane highlights this aptitude for factoring in multipronged, multi-stakeholder challenges within a bigger picture,
but she is by no means alone.
Adaptive leadership in action
This type of adaptive leadership is currently playing out in the halls
of financial services firm Alexander Forbes, under the leadership of
CEO Dawie de Villiers, and at NetFlorist, where MD, Ryan Bacher,
has led his organisation through a rapid Covid-19 pivot.
Bacher recently addressed the eCommerce Virtual Summit
2020, organised by the Insaka eCommerce Academy, and shared
how the entire NetFlorist site was revised in just 36 hours to
cater for fruit and veg delivery and away from the non-essential
gifting option. “It kept our business alive during April,” he said.
NetFlorist also began offering grocery deliveries from Makro and,
as at May 2020, was taking it “day to day”. Bacher commented:
“We’ve done a lot in a short space of time in the last six weeks,
and I started to think our business had become quite inefficient.
We’ve really moved quite quickly… Maybe we need to re-learn
agility in our business?”
What was also changing was the leadership style of the business.
Bacher related how going to bat for one of the company’s drivers
(who had been detained by the police) made an indelible imprint
on his staff. “Normally I think about leadership as making the
right strategic calls … But, in these crazy times, it seems that
leadership can be in much smaller things.”
Similarly, feedback from Alexander Forbes insiders talks to De
Villiers’ authentic style of leadership which has managed to offer
a clear sense of direction to employees thanks to his inclusive
approach and willingness to listen. Within a short space of time,
approximately 2,700 staff members were equipped to work
from home – by early-June, 98% of employees had successfully
transitioned to remote work. De Villiers also signalled the way
forward by declaring remote work and hot-desking to be the
company’s new normal.
Based on staff feedback, De Villiers appealed to managers to
allow flexible working hours which take into account staff who
are home-schooling their children. He requested no meetings
take place over lunchtime and suggested having 45-minute
meetings, so staff have a 15-minute break between discussions to
clear their heads. Central to his approach has been a willingness to consider feedback
and to engage with staff across the organisation. And, like any
good adaptive leader, De Villiers is able to work empathically in the
present while keeping a desired future in mind.
Leading through complexity
What De Villiers, Bacher and Mutshekwane highlight is the
importance of balancing rapid adaption with the slower, more
reflective ability to spot patterns, perceive opportunities and
determine which skills should be mobilised and which can take a
This sort of adaptive leadership drives agility in responsive pivots
but also creates a space in which others can pause, reflect, review
and come to grips with elements that need to shift in order for
a newer and better future to emerge. It’s a safe space, not an “I
am the commander and I have all the answers” narrative, but a
For those leaders in search of this level of leadership, the starting
point should be an honest appraisal of the ‘hows’ of your own
leadership style. Start by asking these questions:
- How do you manage yourself and your thinking? So much of
leadership is focused on your own thinking, as well as your
resilience. This requires self-knowledge and an ability to see
the bigger picture.
- How do you help address issues others are facing, so they, too,
can navigate the changes? Creating an environment where
others can regulate their stress and then help to focus on the
challenge is invaluable.
- How do you apply your mental faculties correctly to this
situation? This element involves seeking expert advice, and
being open to new ideas and criticism, too. It requires focusing
on priorities and addressing these in order of importance.
- How do you manage key relationships? Collaboration and
collective thinking are compulsory in times of crisis and
adaptation. This requires reaching out to unique partners and
being open to collaborating within your own industry.
- How do you time your responses? In other words, when should
you act and what actions need to be taken?
Leaders would do well during this time to reflect on their own
answers to these questions, while ensuring they maintain a
very clear focus on what they can and cannot change. Times of
crisis have the potential to mould leaders, to encourage deeper
awareness and to promote new ways of working, thinking and
communicating. While many will fall by the wayside, adaptive
leaders will relish this challenge.
Click here to read the article