This research sought to examine the changes in leadership styles required by middle
managers when facing an extreme context and adapting to an uncertain environment.
Given that adaptation to the changes its environment is vital for a firm’s performance
(Birkenshaw, Zimmermann & Raisch, 2016), understanding how effective leaders
change leadership styles in an extreme context is vital in the drive for successful
adaptation. Within the framework of this research, the COVID-19 pandemic was defined
as an extreme context that required an alternative approach to leadership.
Academic leadership literature has not sufficiently explored the leadership response
required by management to lead within an extreme context. The study used the
Complexity Theory Framework developed by Uhl-Bien and Arena (2018) in an attempt
to explore the ability of firms to behave as complex adaptive systems when facing
dynamic and highly complex environments.
A qualitative, exploratory and interpretivist research approach supported by twelve semistructured
interviews explored middle managers’ leadership responses within this
particular extreme context. Key findings within the research project support the
Complexity Leadership Theory, demonstrating that an intertwined leadership approach
consisting of entrepreneurial, operational and enabling leadership could be used to
adequately address the additional system complexity created when facing an extreme
context. Additionally, the findings provide insight into leadership approach pivots from
managers as they shift between more task-focused and people-focused leadership
approaches, adjusting their methodology to their team members based on the context in
which they were operating. The researcher makes recommendations that an additional
layer of leadership approach considerations be added to the Complexity Leadership
Framework when utilised by leaders facing an extreme context, that would provide a
framework to help guide the required shift. This more contextualised leadership approach
needs to acknowledge that leadership does not happen within a vacuum and that while
managing complexity within a system, leaders are required to not only shift their thinking
but simultaneously their approach.
The research was limited due to the subjective nature of the interviews. However, the
findings make both a theoretic and a practical contribution to the topic, and offers a
recommended addition to the Complexity Leadership Framework that will aid leaders in
facing additional complexity within their environments.
Mini Dissertation (MBA)--University of Pretoria, 2020.