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While Everyone Was Watching: Adaptive Leaders in Southeast and East Asia During the Pandemic

This is an article written by Rebecca Stasel, Ph.D. Candidate at Queens University (Canada) and Samuel Kim, CAL Founding President that was selected and chosen to be featured at the International Leadership Association ilaglobalnetwork.org

Short Description
The Covid-19 pandemic brought many organizations’ activities came to an abrupt halt when governments around the world issued decrees to limit virus spread, disrupting workplaces, social interactions, and forcing workers into flux. This presentation explores adaptive leadership by discussing two separate cases, situated in Southeast and East Asia, where the pandemic first struck. One case provides an analysis in the K-12 educational sector, and the other case provides an analysis of adaptive leadership in the context of a leadership organization. The authors call for adaptive leadership conversations that include mindfulness, pragmatism, present and futurist thinking, and mindsets of resilience.

Detailed Abstract
The pandemic has forced workers into a state of flux, disrupting workplaces and social interactions with questionable foresight as to what work and lifestyles may look like in the future. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 early last year, many organizations’ activities came to an abrupt halt when governments around the world, one after another, issued decrees to limit the spread of the virus. In Southeast Asia, “movement control orders” which required people to disappear from the public scene and strictly limit any face-to-face interactions, were declared suddenly, requiring organizations—including schools—to rapidly reconstruct service platforms that are based on their highly social and interactive attributes to virtual settings. This presentation explores adaptive leadership by discussing two separate cases, both situated in Southeast and East Asia, where the pandemic first struck. One case provides an analysis in the K-12 educational sector, and the other case provides an analysis of adaptive leadership in the context of a leadership organization.

Theoretical frameworks are by nature categorical. Most leadership theories position social interactions between two groups generally referred to as leaders and followers, who work together to accomplish collective goals (Bass & Bass, 2008). Much scholarship has examined the leader-follower connection, and many models that are hierarchical or lateral have emerged. In times of crisis, however, existing leadership frameworks may be inadequate (Hirudayaraj & Sparkman, 2019).

Adaptive leadership challenges current categorical demarcations, not by trying to subvert them, but by looking for opportunities to improve.

Some adaptive theorists may focus upon the leader-follower dynamic (e.g., DeRue & Ashford, 2010). Adaptive leadership seeks to cultivate a mindset of possibility (Kim, 2020). As such, it is reflective of current and individual organizational contexts, it requires mindfulness, and it needs to target both pragmatism and optimism, and have sustainable goals and outcomes.

The first case involves a subset of a qualitative study on educator acculturation, involving sixteen participants who were teaching in international schools or in leadership roles. All participants were sojourners, or “between-society culture traveler” (Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2005, p. 6), living as expatriates in five regions in Southeast and East Asia when the pandemic began and where strict government protocols were implemented rapidly. Data included interviews, field notes, reflex journals, memory box (Connelly & Clandinin, 1999), and photovoice (Wang & Burris, 1997). A phronetic approach (Tracy, 2020) was used to conduct thematic analysis.

The second case involves a leadership organization that provided leadership education, training, consulting, research, and study-abroad experiences to clients and to students. The government gave everyone a mere 24-hour window by the government to make the shift from working at the office to working from home, effectively bringing many of the activities of the organization to an instant halt. Adapting rapidly, the organization launched a lengthy education campaign, providing a series of free webinars to participants across the world, and undertook the publication of an edited book, which was released in late 2020, and revisioning the organization to work in a narrowed scope offering pandemic-relevant programs, broadening audiences, and shifting formats, as well as hosting a virtual conference.

Findings include most participants experiencing a significant personal toll on their well-being. All participants shared professional and personal adaptive strategies that helped them to meet their professional demands. All of the schools in Case 1 experienced closures from as early as the end of the Lunar New Year in late January, 2020, and these schools worked to quickly develop remote instructional models so as to minimize the interruption impact. The speed with which this transition occurred was a challenge for all participants, who felt that their organizations were demanding capacities of them that they had never or under-developed in the past, which augmented acculturative stress. As the pandemic progressed and people were watching everywhere, participants reported mixed reactions. Some expressed appreciation for living in areas where people respected the strict shutdown measures, which made them feel safer and where cases remained relatively low compared to the population and living density. Others experienced difficulty navigating the authoritative and rigid measures in order to pursue professional activities. School leaders reported very high stress, with their leadership portfolios augmenting and including a level of crisis management never experienced previously. Multiple unintended effects of one adaptation leading to new adaptive measures were noted. Despite high stress, leaders managed to preserve mindsets amenable to action.

This pandemic has emphasized how international schools and leadership professionals have had to adapt to multiple rapid changes. The leaders in these cases appear to have modeled adaptive leadership that can benefit other educational environments and organizations. Conversations about crisis plans are occurring in educational leadership circles, and the pandemic has made evident how important strategic and futurist conversations are. These conversations necessitate strategies for resilience and adaptation. Larger studies would be useful to probe the effects experienced and the actions taken to further illuminate adaptive leadership in educational contexts.


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