Four distinct leadership styles helped businesses thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic

New research from Henley Business School Africa, drawing lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, shows that adaptability is crucial during challenging times.

Whether it was delivering over 700,000 laptops to educational institutions, amalgamating 80 human resource systems and moving them to cloud computing, or establishing a private hospital command centre from scratch, the evidence is clear that leaders who were able to adapt their leadership style, balancing the degree of direction needed with the degree of support provided to clients and customers, were most likely to succeed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to a new white paper, “The success of situational leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic: fact or furore?” published by Henley Business School Africa this week, adaptable leadership emerged as a key solution during the pandemic to facilitate rapid change and the agility needed to survive in the testing circumstances that shook the world in 2020 and 2021. 

“Situational leadership is an approach where leaders adapt their leadership style according to the prevailing circumstances,” explains Malcolm Ferguson, leadership expert and co-author of the report. “The idea was initially presented by Hersey and Blanchard (1969), explaining that four distinct leadership styles – namely directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating – can be used to optimise a team’s performance in terms of the demands of a particular situation.” 

Fellow author Melani Prinsloo says that the research set out to understand why some companies failed, and others thrived during the pandemic. Researchers analysed virtual interviews with representatives of 17 companies, across two diverse sectors – technology and health. “Previous research has demonstrated that team performance is enhanced when team members experience a fit between the style required by the situation, and the style they received and our research set out to affirm this assumption and to examine the veracity of the situational leadership model,” she comments. 

Decisiveness is vital in a crisis

The study focused on critical incidents that impacted the commercial projects of companies from the perspective of project leaders and team members, and set out to identify influences from other organisational actors as well as contextual factors that influenced their behaviours and actions during the time. 

It found that the vast majority (82%) of project managers surveyed reported that they adopted a directing leadership style to deliver their respective projects, meaning they provided strong direction to their teams. Interventions included hard decisions such as retrenching employees to preserve members critical to delivery, investing in IT infrastructure, adequately resourcing projects and guarding against bankruptcy. Sixty-five percent implemented the coaching leadership style, while 53% utilised a supporting style and 41% delegated in order to continue offering their products and services during the various iterations of COVID-19 lockdowns. 

“In times of crisis such as the onset of the pandemic lockdowns, leaders need to make quick decisions to safeguard business functions and revenue streams while also looking after employees’ well-being,” comments co-author Tshidi Pila Machaba, managing director of Imperative Business Solutions. “Understandably, the majority of project managers therefore implemented a directing situational leadership style, complemented by coaching and supporting. The exception was technology companies that had historically worked with teams dispersed across offices and countries, having experienced working remotely, and being focused on improving their coaching and delegation situational leadership capabilities.” 

Coaching leadership style provided more emotional support 

The two-thirds of project managers who turned to the coaching style during the pandemic tended to provide more emotional support and helped build trust among employees, keeping them connected during the pandemic. Critical interventions included: additional training; complementing regular online risk assessment meetings with longer routine project status meetings; sharing information continuously; and providing clear frameworks for operations. Under this approach, branches were allowed to adapt operating procedures to their unique contexts and certain skills were transferred to partner organisations. 

The supporting style, meantime, saw project managers drawing more heavily on the company’s physical and intellectual resources, increasing the frequency of reporting to project team members, and helping team members to remain connected but with minimal direction from leadership. 

“The diverse sample provided invaluable insight concerning businesses’ behaviour and management styles during the COVID-19 pandemic,” comments Prinsloo. “Findings confirmed the relevance and fluidity of situational management styles during the devastating global crisis that brought many businesses to their knees. 

“It’s clear that situational leadership presents a useful model to understand the nature of leadership required in project management. While there were important similarities between the two sectors, the findings also highlighted the uniqueness of different working environments, cautioning that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to project management does not reflect the realities that diverse companies have to manage under trying conditions.”

 The paper was authored by a five-strong international team under the banner of the Latin American Council of Management Schools (CLADEA) Project Management Research Group. In addition to Henley-based authors Prinsloo, Ferguson, and Machaba, authors included Dr Pedro Ribeiro, senior researcher at ALGORTIMI Research Centre at the University of Minho, Portugal and Professor Alet Erasmus, Emeritus professor at the University of Pretoria. 

According to Professor Danie Petzer, Director of Research at Henley Africa, the white paper is the latest in a series of collaborative thought leadership initiatives that the school is pursuing. 

“Our aim is to build a community of research practice that taps into the wisdom of practitioners and provides practical solutions to real-world challenges,” he says. “By welcoming a broader pool of researchers into our orbit and providing the right support to innovative thinkers, we create opportunity for research, we bring new ideas from the coalface of management to the broader market more quickly and inspire new solutions in challenging times.”

Download the white paper

Similar posts

Get notified on new Learning insights

Be the first to know about new  our latest newsletter insights