You may have been blessed with the ability to be fairly good at multi-tasking… and may even also display traits and characteristics that include being flexible, resilient, calm and able to be optimistic. I was teaching the Leadership module to my new Postgraduate Diploma class about seven weeks ago. One of the first things us Leadership folk like to set straight, is that there is a difference between Leadership and Management. We take time to delve into the field – how it has evolved, and how the old paradigm of extreme bureaucracy, hierarchy, and extreme top-down, command-and-control, alone will not cut it in today’s complex world. Oh yes, the word complexity was actually used. We even touched on VUCA – a buzzword that we have come to love – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

So I could see how good progress was being made in that week with my students. My postgraduate students, who are mainly working in the public and private sectors in South Africa, were starting to speak the language of Leadership. Oh yes, not only management – the first few days of Management 101 still rings – ‘planning, command, control and coordination’. The students were grasping the idea of influence relationships, leader and follower, change and shared outcomes. They understood the need for more personal approaches involving listening rather than mere one-way communication drawing on an expert approach, and not only focusing on the status quo, but being future-orientated and pushing for change… and just being humane and aware of the follower – and not only the employee or subordinate. There already, a lightbulb moment arose – our choice of language in the organisation. The various topics pertaining to Leadership made sense and we ended off on a positive note.

Fast-forward to where we are now – VUCA is now more real than we ever imagined. We were often associating those VUCA feelings with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) or digital age, which many of us in South Africa were still coming to terms with. We are now experiencing change – big change, and it is definitely not business as usual. Just as parents are encouraged to get a child into a routine, so too had we become accustomed to our own forms of organisation that we had put into place so that we could expertly drive order into the disorder – whether at work or at home, and we had our dreams and goals that we had set for ourselves and those closest to us. Our different life stages signalled different meanings – retirement for some perhaps, climbing the corporate ladder for others, and perhaps even family planning.

But alas… our attempts at planning to ensure a reasonable degree of predictability suddenly came crashing down… along with the markets. We are now in a state of flux – we have moved from the known and comfortable, to a strange place. We are perhaps fearful – for our health, families, future, and so much more. We have found ourselves literally thrown into the deep end – some of us have had to overnight become teachers, chefs, butlers, entertainers, IT specialists… and that while navigating the meaning of ‘working from home’. This is transformational change, requiring transformational leadership (not only from those you consider to be your leaders, but also from within).

Changing processes to become technologically adept is one thing – most of us may still be figuring out how best to do Zoom, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, Moodle (and wondering why we didn’t choose IT instead) and this while managing all those Whatsapp memes and videos. Your child’s school may also be slowly pushing the idea of distance learning or on-line teaching… and you may be panicked at the thought of how that is going to unfold. You may also suddenly find yourself having to do a lot more social long-distance chats now with friends and family. So yes, here we are… radical change, make no mistake, be prepared for a mind-set change as well. Change may bring a host of uncomfortable feelings – we may experience resistance to change, fear of the unknown, anxiety, pain and loss, and even a sense of helplessness… as we watch and wait. Another thing we Leadership folks preach is that leadership is not vested in a title or position, but that it is rather something that each one of us is capable of doing – we can bring about change and we are in a sense all influencers. So whether you are a leader or manager, or choose to take this from a more personal point of view… here are a few key points to facilitate the change process.

  • When tasked with leading others (again interpret this widely) – engage in regular communication (choose your mode of communication carefully), focus on participation from an early stage, and approach the situation with a genuine acknowledgement of the multitude of emotions that are present.
  • Think systemically to ensure that you identify the diverse stakeholders (internal and external to the organisation) – take time to truly understand the ‘those who are impacted by and those who impact’ part.
  • While a more directive leadership style is to be expected now, given the state of emergency we are in – focus on the person and the task. Never has it been more fitting to avoid a situation where employees end up saying, “They only care about the job / or the bottom-line”. This may entail taking more time and your own personal energy but the potential for authentic buy-in will be unparalled. Remember that change may also result in unintended consequences – with the possibility of delays.
  • Care for self during this time is equally critical – we need high levels of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, flexibility and resilience. Your inherent personality, values and attitudes may already be tested now – one of those memes doing the rounds, says “introverts, please put down your book and check on your extrovert friends. They are not okay.”

So as recently argued, let us practice ‘physical distancing’, and not ‘social distancing’. Let us take this opportunity to develop the skills to become truly effective leaders (in the same vein, effective followers) who are able to engage in collaboration and teamwork to jointly navigate the immense complexity facing us so that we can see ourselves through this storm and emerge into a brighter future.

Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches

Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches

Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches is an Associate Professor at UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership. Her research, supervisory and consulting interests include leadership, change management and organisational behaviour.

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