Adaptive Leadership in Times of Change
How leaders within an organization decide issues is an important part of that organization’s success. This is because that decision-making process flows down to other parts of the organization; others emulate these actions and processes within the group (Offergelt et al., 2019). This article will discuss a leadership approach called adaptive leadership theory through the examination of a senior leader of a Fortune 500 firm during the early stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic. It will also describe an alternative theory of leadership demonstrate why it was not an optimal choice during this time.
Adaptive Leadership Theory
According to Cote (2022), “Leadership research has showed that there are as many definitions for leadership as the people that have tried to define it” (p. 38). However, in its essential form, leadership has four components: it requires a transactional process between the leader and the follower; it requires the leader have influence to communicate; its requires groups of followers for the leader to impact; and it require a sense of a common aim to work towards (Cote, 2022).
Using each of these components, a leader becomes adaptive when they seek to improve or increase an organization’s capacity to prosper (Kincaid, 2010). Citing research, Bagwell (2020) states “Adaptive work requires determining what currently requires change while rethinking how organizations will adapt and thrive in a new environment” (p. 31). Cote (2018) concurs, noting that a particular leader’s position within the organization matters less in adaptive leadership than their ability to make necessary changes during uncertain times. The COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 was certainly a period of uncertainty for various organizations.
Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 “is caused by the virus severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), a new virus in humans causing respiratory illness which can be spread from person-to-person” (para. 4). To date, COVID-19 has caused the death of over 6.3 million people globally and over 1 million in the United States alone (Johns Hopkins University, 2022). .
Citing economic data, Cote (2022) states that 32 major companies filed for bankruptcy because of COVID-19 across such diverse industries as trucking, retail, old and gas, media, food and restaurants, and nutrition. Cote (2022) further notes that as of April 2021, 34 percent of small businesses were closed because of COVID while overall losses to the United States’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ranged from $3.2 trillion to $4.8 trillion.
Warner Bros. Discovery
One such company affected by COVID-19 was Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD). According to Fortune Magazine (2022), WBD is number 310 on their annual list of the world’s largest companies. WBD is a company that has undergone multiple large-scale organizational changes. This includes AT&T purchasing Time Warner (the holding company that ran WarnerBros., HBO, and Turner) in 2018; the consolidation of WarnerBros., HBO, and Turner from distinct enterprises into divisions and then brands of WarnerMedia, and now AT&T spinning WarnerMedia off and its subsequent purchase by Discovery Communications in April 2022 to create WBD (Chmielewski, 2018; Hayes, 2022; Kempner & Ho, 2019).
Each of these events created (and continues to create) disruption to the work of individual teams and the company, and uncertainty among the larger staff. Add in the onslaught of a pandemic and the situation was ripe for adaptive leadership to keep the functions performing as necessary.
Senior Leader — Nada Noaman, Vice President
Within the WBD Chief Information Security Office (CISO), one senior leader stood out: Nada Noaman, Vice President of Threat Detection and Response. In her role, she had responsibility for security operations/incident response, vulnerability management and remediation, technical security testing, third party risk management, and overall risk management for the legacy WarnerMedia portion of WBD. With the on-set of COVID Noaman follows Cote’s (2022) requirements for leadership and applied an adaptive approach to it as defined by Bagwell (2020): she influenced her teams and staff through impactful processes toward the goal of ensuring WBD’s cybersecurity capabilities did not falter in a time of crisis and uncertainty by seeking to understand the true nature of the problem the team was facing because of new remote-work requirements.
Fear was a predominant factor for employees across the country; this fear was based on losing one’s life from the actual COVID-19 virus and economic fear from the effects of the disease e.g. losing one’s job because of financial pressure facing WBD (Belen, 2021). In addition, mandated or recommended social distancing will “trigger certain negative psychological effects” (Belen, 2021, p. 608). These factors created what Belen (2021) called a truly unique rise in mental health concerns during the pandemic.
With many WBD cybersecurity employees working remotely and no longer able to engage in casual office banter, Noaman recognized early on the need for interconnectedness and mindfulness within her staff and teams. To address this, she created a series of weekly touch base meetings with each of her direct reports with video on. She encouraged her team leads to do the same. The goal of these meetings was specifically to not discuss work or ongoing projects; rather, it was to create open dialogue and conversation about what members of the team were feeling in the early days of the pandemic. It specifically addressed Belen’s (2021) concerns about increased fear and increased mental health by opening up communication and taking a pulse of each team member’s mental state. It also fostered meaningful discussions about what people were feeling.
As an adaptive leadership style, Noaman recognized what her larger team needed to continue meeting its objectives and adapted her meeting cadence and purpose to address the issue. While her efforts were only one part of WBD’s overall COVID-19 effort, she determined that something “requires change while rethinking how organizations will adapt and thrive in a new environment” (Bagwell, 2020).
An Alternative Leadership Style to Approach This Issue
As Cotes (2022) notes, there are various forms of leadership. One of these is Situational Leadership Theory (SLT). Developed in the late 1960s, SLT comprises four leadership styles that are used as the name implies during different situations (Flixabout, 2019; Thompson & Glasø, 2015). Oakes (2018) describes them, using the original developers terms, as delegating, supporting, coaching, and directing. Figure 1 shows their relationship to each other.
Situational Leadership Approach
Each square in Figure 1 is based on the idea that a leader reviews her subordinates and uses one of the four leadership styles based on a combination of that individual’s need for support and direction. As those two factors change for an individual on a task, the leader can change her style to meet the needs of the individual and the task leading to different development levels (Oakes, 2018). For example, “if workers are willing but unable to perform, a leader may need to coach them, if they are able but unwilling, a leader may need to support them instead” (Oakes, 2018, p. 9).
SLT was familiar to Noaman as they teach it in WBD’s leadership courses. The challenge with using the SLT approach is that it addresses multiple tasks by multiple people. With the COVID-19 pandemic, employees on Noaman’s team faced a common problem that required an unique solution applicable for all members. Thus, SLT would not be an effective way to address this common problem for Noaman.
The COVID-19 pandemic upended many aspects of organizations. One leader, Noaman from WBD CISO, applied an adaptive leadership approach to address a common issue her teams faced: connectedness. She recognized what her staff required to continue to meet its cybersecurity objectives. She adapted her meeting cadence and purpose to address this vital issue. Situational leadership, taught at her company, would not address the problem. For this scenario, adaptive leadership was required, and she executed it.
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