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?

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, Vuyiswa Mutshekwane.

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,” she said.

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 strong point. 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 multi-pronged, 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 lunch time 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 back seat.

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 meaningful conversation.

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.

Hallmarks of adaptive leaders

Be able to hold steady – Dealing with difficulty, push-back and discomfort are essential.
Think strategically and politically – All stakeholders must be involved. 
Understand conflict and encourage rigorous debate – If this means taking some heat, then so be it. 
‘Give back the work’ – Rather than solving the problem for others, allow them to be part of the solution. 
Anchor themselves during times of difficulty – Being mindful and grounded is essential, as is clarity of purpose. 
Understand what they are asking of people and what is on the line – What will people have to give up, contribute or sacrifice as a result of these changes?
Maintain a positive intent – The focus must always be on helping people, not manipulation. 


  • Adaptive leadership, an approach popularised by Harvard Business School’s Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, points to a style best suited to dealing with wide-ranging systemic change such as the radical shifts being brought about by Covid-19.
  • Adaptive capacity relates to the ability of the people within an organisation to be flexible and open to change. It also speaks to an individual’s own capacity to absorb and navigate changes.
  • Adaptive leaders help others to challenge their assumptions, values and biases. This can result in push back, but it also allows a better way of engaging and solving complex problems.

Many leaders already display characteristics of adaptive leadership...

...maybe we need to re-learn agility in our business?”

...allow flexible working hours which take into account staff who are home-schooling...

Alison Reid

Alison is the director of the Personal and Applied Learning Department, responsible for coaching and facilitation at GIBS. She is an educator, researcher and coach, holding a Master’s degree in Executive Business Coaching and accredited with the International Coaching Federation. Alison is passionate about human-centricity. She believes that human-specific skills like creativity, emotional and social agility, ideation and sense-making will increasingly become the key differentiators in tech-dominated workplaces as well as the catalyst for healthy, connected and responsible societies.

Tanya Stevens

Tanya is a Professional Associate at GIBS where she works as a coach, lecturer and facilitator. She is an internationally qualified executive business coach and founded her coaching and consultancy business, BECLEAR, in 2006. Tanya is a member of The Change Leaders, an international community of change agents focused on supporting large-scale change initiatives. She holds a Master’s degree in management from Wits, cum laude, and a Master’s degree in coaching and consulting for Change from Oxford’s Saïd Business School (UK) and HEC (France) cum laude.



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