• Certain ambidextrous leaders or start-ups in India have pivoted quickly during the crisis, helping them to adapt.
  • Start-ups need to remember to adapt more than corporates, and individuals need to become as adaptive as their leaders.

Human behaviour can be changed, of course. But just a cursory glance at the research reveals that the process is highly layered. For any significant change to take place, there are at least five stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

It is said that most people give up at the contemplation stage.

Plus, the movement between stages can take years. However, in times like these, not bothering to try and change comes with a caveat: change now or perish!

The interesting, arguably alarming, part about the type of change required right now is that it threatens to reset just about everything; the way we live, work and consume, and that's just for starters.

Jorge Conde, General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, leads investments at the cross-section of biology, computer science and engineering. He summarises well the sudden change, from an industry perspective, saying:

“We find ourselves at an inflection point. Healthcare has left the building. The delivery of care has broken out of the traditional walls of the hospital and is moving towards where we work and live.”

It means that every sector, industry, company, startup and indeed every individual must adapt to survive.

A leadership reset

Have you ever watched a nail-biting sports match? In such conditions in basketball, “go-to players” are a key resource. Imagine there is just a few seconds left, and one team is trailing by two points. Desperately needing to sink a three pointer to win, the team calls upon a go-to player.

This player has the confidence of taking the winning shot at the critical moment, and they also have the skill to adapt to adverse situations, not to mention shoulder the responsibility of missing.

“A great leader in crisis has the ability to take things into his/her hands and not delegate that key responsibility to someone down the line,” says Biju Dominic, Chief Evangelist, Fractal Analytics & Chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

“No one wants ‘superhuman-leaders’; those who believe they know it all,” he adds.

Martin Reeves, Chairman at BCG Henderson Institute defines these leaders as "ambidextrous" and quotes the example of Anand Mahindra, Chairman of the Mahindra Group, explaining how he throws quarterly challenges to his leadership teams of the different businesses to reimagine a crisis situation and come up with creative solutions to navigate uncertain times.

Even within the constraints that COVID-19 enforces, we need to believe that we still retain some agency over our lives.

—Nisha Ramchandani

This approach is further defined by Reeves in his book, “Your Strategy Needs a Strategy”, in which he joins Knut Haanaes and Janmejaya Sinha in offering proven methods to business strategy planning in especially tough times.

Adapting in the real world

We can talk extensively about ambidextrous leaders in a corporate environment, but the need is more pressing in a start-up, where the fear of perishing is all too real.

Here are three examples of ambidextrous leaders or companies in India who pivoted quickly during a crisis:

1. Based in Gurgaon near New Delhi, Emoha Eldercare was founded by Saumyajot Roy as a comprehensive at-home care plan for the elderly, offering personalised visits. It quickly had to go virtual as the pandemic struck and launched Emoha Empower to provide telemedicine, emergency services and COVID-19-related services for elders.

It created an emergency response team that notifies an ambulance service, nearby hospitals and offers related services through its app. The virtual community it created, providing entertainment and education for the elderly, has 3,700 elders registered on the platform.

2. Mangalore-based Pritam Prince Pinto runs MyRoadRunner. Formerly an online delivery platform functioning largely via WhatsApp, it transitioned to a one-stop-shop online marketplace for all local needs during the pandemic becoming an app-based business as it went.

It has onboarded customers and vendors via the app and now sells anything from fish, car services and medical services to customised terrace-gardening solutions, connecting sellers and buyers directly.

Previously during lockdown, small vendors were having to shut up shop, affecting their sales and the supply of essentials. It made no sense because demand remained high. There are now over 700 vendors on the platform and some 46,000 customers use the app.

3. Growfit is a nutrition company in Bangalore and was started by Jyotsna Pattabiraman, after she deciphered that customer needs had changed and most at-home chefs required fresh ingredients. The company had their own bakery where they had always baked their own bread but they started delivering this to friends and family.

Soon, they faced disproportionate demand and now deliver bread and baked goods widely. They have added paneer and proteins and other innovative, fresh ingredients for at-home chefs.

The offering is called Growfit@Home and is currently by invite only. It has become one of the company’s largest channels of sales and will be made available on all direct-to-home marketplaces, such as Amazon Pantry.

Traits of adaptive leaders identified by behavioural scientists

Behavioural scientist Dr Sanna Balsari-Palsure has studied traits of adaptive leaders and says the top five are: internal locus of control, intuition and empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, interpersonal flexibility and neuroticism.

In a crisis like COVID-19, leaders need to have a strong internal locus of control themselves, but also be able to serve as role models of the same to their employees.

Even within the constraints that COVID-19 enforces, we need to believe that we still retain some agency over our lives.

Many adaptive leaders are what psychologists term "interpersonally flexible" – they can switch between different working styles to different situations and contexts. An adaptive leader could, for example, be naturally extroverted and therefore more assertive and talkative with their clients.

However, they would also be able to adjust and modulate their behaviour when speaking to a team that is primarily made up of introverts who prefer to think a problem through rather than brainstorm.

Adaptation is not for leaders only; to survive change, every individual must adapt too and as fast as is humanly possible.