Required leadership style in turbulent and uncertain times

Julia Muetudhana

1. Organisational structures

On 17 March 2020, H.E. Dr. Geingob declared a state of emergency followed by a lock down that officially started on 28 March at 14:00 and ends on 17 April 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has infiltrated all spheres of our society and work life. It can therefore reasonably be concluded that Globally and for Namibia it has been business unusual especially for many Governments and Private companies. This article is inspired by one of John Maxwell’s quotes: “Everything rises and falls on leadership”. During these turbulent times citizens and employees are looking for leadership to navigate through these turbulent times’. The purpose of this article is to provide some basic tools on how leaders can navigate through these turbulent times and emerge stronger during and after the COVID-19 which is working with virtual teams and providing virtual leadership. Therefore, this article is not about unpacking the term working from home and its labour implications.

This article draws from my Master’s Thesis, 19 years ago in 2001 which focused on Managerial Leadership in mechanistic, organic and virtual organisations building on the empirical research conducted. Since then working environment of organizations has evolved over the past two decades. Presently, the business activities have become more global and competitive as compared to the past. All these happened due to a faster pace of advancement in information and communication technologies, which renders jobs more dynamic and multidimensional. Research has indicated that one of the major challenges of managing virtual teams on a temporary or permanent basis is leadership. It is very difficult for a team leader to control every team member directly when team members are separated by physical space and thus no face to face contact. Avolio (2003) indicates that virtual leadership is not only the extension of traditional leadership but a changed way which leaders and followers have to follow within and outside the boundaries of organization

Current time pressures, complexities, rapid change, global competition and the merging of computer and communication technology are facilitating a trend toward the virtual workplace. As the growth in the virtual work place accelerates, organisations face new challenges to cope with new organisational structures and managerial leadership roles. Of particular relevance to this article, is that the new organisational forms necessitate new management structures, which might be different from mechanistic structures. It also implies that the prevalence of managerial leadership in different organisational structures might be different. The empirical/practical research suggests that business leaders play a critical role: they may function as an obstacle to the spread of virtual work and their cooperation is essential if virtual work initiatives are to succeed. To understand managers’ experience in a virtual context, it is essential to understand how virtual work alters the organisation as whole.
Organisational structures and designs have been in existence since the 17th Century. The purpose of this section is to provide an overview on how organisational structures and the world of work evolved over time. An organisational structure is a formal plan of how to achieve efficient division of labour and effective coordination of members’ activities. In other words, it serves as a vehicle for coordinating and delegating work to help people implement the organisation’s goals and strategies. There are several organisational structures but for the purpose of this article, the focus will be on three organisational structures, namely mechanistic, organic and virtual organisations. A mechanistic organisation is characterised by a centralised decision-making, formalised and standardised way of coordinating and motivating people and these companies operate in a relatively stable environment. According to Jones (2001), mechanistic structures are designed to induce people to behave in predictable ways and behaviour inappropriate to the role is discouraged or prohibited. As a result, mechanistic systems emphasise procedures and rules. If the environment does not change and it is stable, a highly mechanistic organisation can be very efficient.
An organic form operates in a dynamic, uncertain environment where rapid communication and information sharing are often necessary to respond to customer needs and develop new products. Decisions and control are decentralised and shared at all levels of the organisation. Organic systems seek to maximise satisfaction, flexibility and development. Employees performing different functions work to solve problems mutually and become involved in each other’s activities. As a result, a high level of integration and joint specialisation is required so that employees can share information and overcome problems. The integration of functions is achieved by means of complex mechanisms like task forces and self-managed teams. It is important to note that organisations should design their structures to match the dynamisms and uncertainty in an environment.

The third organisation structure, is the virtual organisation. This business model emanates from a response to unprecedented customer expectations and alternatives, global competition, time compression, complexities, rapid change, and increased use of technology. The virtual organisation is also known as the boundaryless organisation, which is composed of people who are linked by zoom conference facilities, computer team view, video teleconferencing, skype and many other forms. The virtual organisation is defined as one that is interspersed with external ties, managed with an internal structure of virtual teams that are assembled and disabled according to need (Lipnack 2001). “Unlike conventional teams, a virtual team performs work across space, time, and organisational boundaries connected by interactive communication technologies. Virtual teams may include employees, management, customers, suppliers, and government, working together to achieve common goals. These teams often stay together only to perform their episodic task. They may work jointly on a new project, but when the product is designed and goes into production, the project is finished and the virtual team dissolves.

2. Organisational structures and leadership styles
2.1 Mechanistic Structure and Transactional Leadership
Having elaborated on the three different organisational structures, the question is: what leadership style is required in turbulent times and for each organisation? A mechanistic organisation flourishes in a stable environment. A stable environment would generate high frequencies of transactional leadership. The term “transactional” refers to the fact that this type of leader essentially motivates subordinates by exchanging rewards for performance. A transactional leader generally does not look ahead in strategically guiding an organisation to a position of market leadership; instead, these managers are often concerned with making sure everything flows smoothly today. Transactional leadership styles are more concerned with maintaining the normal flow of operations – this style is best described as (“keeping the ship afloat”). This leadership style is structured, concerned only with efficient ideas and what will work, thus using power of position to reinforce behaviour. This leadership style is not ideal in a turbulent and dynamic environment. When it comes to front-line supervisors of minimum-wage employees, Universities, Government agencies, a transactional leadership style can be more effective.

1.2 Organic Structure and Transformational Leadership
Research indicates that an unstable environment will generate high frequencies of transformational leadership. In a turbulent environment, transformational leadership needs to be fostered at all levels in the organisation. According to (Ingram, 2019) a transformational leader goes beyond managing day-to-day operations and crafts strategies for taking his company, department or work team to the next level of performance and success. Transformational leadership styles focus on team-building, motivation and collaboration with employees at different levels of an organisation to accomplish change for the better. These leaders set goals and incentives to push their subordinates to higher performance levels, while providing opportunities for personal and professional growth for each employee. On the other hand, CEOs or sales managers can be more effective if they are transformational leaders. Executive managers need the ability to design and communicate grand strategic missions, passing the missions down to transactional leaders for implementation of the details.

1.3 Virtual organisations and virtual leadership – practical implications
In 2001, empirical research indicated that transformational leadership is more prevalent in virtual organisations. This finding has been amplified by Purvanovaa and Bono (2009) who carried out an experiment on transformational leadership in virtual team contexts and conventional face to face teams. It is concluded by the authors that transformational leadership has great impact on a virtual team and leaders with transformational style of leadership in virtual teams can achieve higher performance levels. Eventually Transformational Leaders have to evolve in Virtual Leadership. Kerfoot (2010) has described virtual leadership as leading of an organization which is not physical, in short, it is the management of the work that has been distributed among the members who communicate and contact each other for their work through electronic media.

During this COVID-19 period and beyond, how can Virtual Leaders manage their teams effectively when they are geographically dispersed? Below are the recommendations which I found helpful by (Mehtab, 2018);
a) The virtual leaders must have the ability to inspire people from long distances and develop self-managing qualities in employees;
b) The virtual leaders must know how to cross barriers of culture, time and distances about new changes in places where direct supervision and control is impossible;
c) To maintain the high-performance of group across the boundaries new abilities are required. It is concluded that virtual leaders must be dependent on coaching and not supervision
d) Trust and cohesion must be created among team members so that they must identify the common goals and objectives.
e) Leaders should provide such virtual settings in which tasks and relational roles can be assigned and monitored by the authorised/concerned members.
f) Leaders must establish some (sort of) communication standards for internal communication between members so that misinterpretation should be avoided.
g) Leaders should have realistic expectations in terms of working hours and availability. One of the many reasons employees appreciate the ability to work on a virtual team is that it could represent greater flexibility. Virtual leaders should be aware of this and be wary to not set unrealistic expectations. For example, it does not mean that a remote employee is slacking off just because he or she does not respond to a message within a few minutes. It could be that the individual has muted message notifications in order to be most productive. Having realistic expectations—and communicating those expectations—will help everyone stay happier in performing their roles.
h) Leaders should be self-motivated. If a virtual team leader needs a lot of direction, it will be much more difficult to motivate the dispersed team. This person needs to be proactive and needs to plan and act in ways that are deliberate and intentional
i) Leaders should select and approve appropriate tools to work to communicate with each other. There must, however, be some flexibility that the user can select and adapt according to his or her needs.
j) A virtual leader must arrange different ceremonies to reward the members such as gifts, cash prizes or certificates of appreciation. Virtual Leaders should also practice to give members a gold star for best performance. In this way members recognize the importance of their work and will perform their best in future.
k) The virtual leader should develop an expert’s directory from the onset of a project. This directory should consist of member’s photo, his or her previous experience, training, assignments and professional affiliations.
l) In virtual settings team member’s skills matrix should be placed at a visible location, and accessible to everyone in order to see what expertise each member is bringing to the team. This type of expertise directory or skills matrix is the best tool to understand the team diversity and to build competency-based trust.
m) Be proactive about staying in contact with the dispersed team. This could take any number of forms, such as setting up weekly catch-up calls or having frequent team meetings. No matter how it is done, the virtual leader needs to be proactive about staying in contact with the entire team and staying abreast with what they are working on, how projects are going, what obstacles they are facing, and what they need to perform optimally.
n) Set and track goals. When teams are not physically in the same location, the main way that employee performance is judged is by outcome. Specific, measurable goals are crucial, and tracking them frequently (i.e., monitoring progress, not just completion) can help to ensure the team members stay on track and that the team leader is able to identify problems before they become catastrophic.
o) Have great communication skills. There is a lot more room for misunderstandings when you do not have the benefit of tone, facial expressions, and body language to help you decipher what someone means when there is any ambiguity. That means there is a higher chance of having miscommunications if the managers and team members in a virtual team are not excellent communicators. Communication must be clear and precise.
p) Be proactive about staying in contact with the dispersed team. This could take any number of forms, such as setting up weekly catch-up calls or having frequent team meetings. No matter how it is done, the virtual leader needs to be proactive about staying in contact with the entire team and staying abreast of what they are working on, how projects are going, what obstacles they are facing, and what they need.
q) Be able to show trust and motivate employees. Virtual leaders must show their team members that they are trusted to get the job done. They must be able to motivate employees to perform at their best.
r) Finally, the effective leadership should enhance the team’s experience of each member by confirming that every member has an equal opportunity to learn, to contribute and to grow, so that he/she should feel as an important part of the team.

2. Conclusion
The article has attempted to provide an overview of the different organisational structures and leadership styles required in each organisation structure, namely mechanistic, organic and virtual organisation. Based on empirical research, the article concluded that transformational leadership is required but it needs to evolve in virtual leadership to manage virtual teams and virtual organisations. A different skills set is required and the article has highlighted practical steps that the Leaders can take to cushion or navigate their employees and organisations during this Lockdown period and beyond. The article has been shortened. Short comings of the study are that challenges of virtual organisations are not well outlined due to space but this is an area that needs research and more scholars are invited to make their contributions.

1. Muetudhana, J. An Exploratory study of Managerial Leadership in Mechanistic, Organic and virtual organisations. 2001. University Stellenbosch Press. RSA


3. Mehtab K., Rehman A.; Ishfaq A., Jamil R.A 2018. Virtual Leadership: A Review Paper. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences. Vol 8 No 4 S1 July 2017

4. Ingram D.; Reviewed by Jayne Thompson, LLB, LLM; Transformational Leadership Vs. Transactional Leadership Definition. Updated February 04, 2019

Related Posts