/ 10 April 2024

Adaptive leadership will steer SA businesses through tough times

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Adaptive leadership thinking can be formally taught as much as instinctively applied, with significant bottom-line rewards.

If anyone were to invent a boot camp for dynamic leadership skills for business leaders, they would be hard-pressed to come up with something more challenging than what South Africa presents today.

Who could imagine dealing with a slow economy, intense political disagreements and money issues all at once? Then, let’s add a crisis that includes the collapse of a reliable national power supply and the near collapse of the national rail and port logistic infrastructure.

Under such circumstances, the well-worn observation that every crisis holds an opportunity might feel like somewhat empty, hopeful optimism. But, faced with these realities, business leaders are sure of one thing: doing nothing is not an option.

South Africa today offers a unique opportunity for leaders to gauge their fitness for adaptive leadership and test how well they can adjust to changing situations. For some, this might come instinctively, driven by experience, deep domain-specific knowledge and personal charisma. For others who do not have these attributes, the mantle of leadership might weigh heavily.

Businesses that train their leaders in these flexible skills will see benefits even in tough times. South African corporates that wish to succeed should invest in these dynamic leadership skills at the top of their executive development programme priorities.

Adaptive leadership involves creative problem-solving, quick adjustment to new plans and a solid grasp of economic conditions around the world and at home. Educational institutions, particularly business schools, play a pivotal role in preparing future leaders for these challenges. 

A fascinating example of adaptive leadership was captured by The New York Times in its coverage of Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana and how it transformed into an all-female safari guiding group in what had traditionally been a male-dominated space. 

The change was driven by managers who observed an economic phenomenon. They saw that the costs of guide vehicle maintenance dropped when women were drivers, that they used less fuel, and that vehicles lasted longer.

Female guides also brought a different approach compared to men. When no big game was around, they focused on other things that male guides would often overlook, like interesting bird life or fascinating stories about the game park. 

This adaptive leadership showed thinking that led to fundamental organisational change, which resulted in a more profitable business and an enhanced experience for guests.

Locally, such resilience was apparent in the lockdown years of the Covid-19 pandemic, where leaders showed they were able to adapt to unfathomable challenges. A shining example, although by no means unique at the time, was that of NetFlorist, which was able to pivot its flower and gift delivery business into a fruit-and-vegetable delivery platform within 36 hours, ensuring the business survived. 

We continue to see this today as critical sectors like mining and telecommunications find transformative solutions to problems like loadshedding.

South African mines, which account for some 30% of the country’s energy consumption, are developing a combined 6,500 megawatts of renewable power, according to the Minerals Council. They are expected to generate 2,294 megawatts of their own power by 2025, with more expected onstream by 2030.

Thanks to load-shedding South Africa’s major telcos have arguably become world leaders in the use of alternate energy sources to maintain the functioning of the country’s digital economy, showing how adaptation in the face of adversity builds resilience for the future.

These examples show the value of adaptive leadership thinking, which can be formally taught as much as instinctively applied with significant bottom-line rewards. 

Hewlett-Packard was faced with unprecedented competition and disruptive technological innovation globally.  In 2001, it launched a dynamic leadership programme to equip managers to handle rapid changes. The programme trained more than 8,000 managers in its first year and yielded a 15-fold return on investment.

This outcome was achieved even during the HP-Compaq merger, one of the largest reorganisations in corporate history.

To succeed, leaders must look forward and not simply to tomorrow, and that requires a skill set that is grounded in resilience and the ability for the successful leader to maintain continuous learning, scenario planning, and embrace change.

When this is done successfully, particularly in a crisis, the results can be profound. A celebrated case study is that of Howard Schultz, who returned as chief executive of Starbucks in the storm of the 2008 financial crisis.

At the time, Starbucks was a brand in decline, battered by the hurricane of a crisis-shocked economy. It was associated with what many thought of as the excesses which had brought on the financial crisis. Through strategic closures and product innovation, Schultz revitalised the brand and its performance. This included bold moves such as shutting every one of their thousands of stores for a day and shipping 10,000 store managers off to New Orleans to be part of a plan to refocus the business.

We believe that the lessons learned from crises such as the pandemic demonstrate the power of flexible business models alongside adaptive and crisis-resilient management, which the modern leader should embrace.

To future-proof our economy and businesses, it is crucial that organisations appreciate that such resilient leadership DNA cannot always be “bought in”. Indeed, there is a compelling business case to be made, as HP and others have proved, to invest in and teach leaders the tools needed to navigate SA’s challenging reality.

Frik Landman is the executive chair and acting chief executive at DaVinci Business School, which has been specialising in advanced academic programmes in innovation management, business leadership and technology management for about two decades.