Contextual Leadership


My most recent book, The Leadership Equation, described ten universal competencies that I believe all leaders must use to build high-performing organizations. But I want to emphasize that I also think that all leadership is contextual. By that I mean, leaders need to figure out the position that they – and their organizations – are in and decide what’s most important for them to do, given that context.

Different contexts require different leadership skills. Let’s take three examples. The first is a mature organization that needs to sustain and grow a set of successful services and products. This type of organization needs what I call “steward leaders.” Their role is assuring that the people around them are being successful and operate at a high level. Steward leaders are not radical disrupters. They focus on making sure people have the skills they need. They listen to customers and utilize feedback to drive continuous learning and improvement. They make sure peer departments are talking to each other. In this type of organization, you need people who display high levels of commitment, work well together, and don’t do anything to undermine the successful formula.

A second example is an organization trying to reinvent itself. These kinds of organizations need what I call “inventor leaders.” Their role is to challenge orthodoxy, to define a dramatic new vision for the company, to cannibalize existing products to make a strategic leap ahead. In this type of organization, you need people who display high levels of creativity, a tolerance for uncertainty, a level of fearlessness and willingness to experiment and fail. You need people who will fight to make their ideas succeed, people who are used to competition and thrive on it.

A third example is an organization heavily affected by regulation. This type of organization needs what I call “political leaders.” Their role is to effectively strategize and lobby for laws and regulations that are in the company’s long-term interest. It takes experience and a deft hand to identify trends and craft the laws and regulations that strike a balance between the company’s needs and society’s needs. It is short-term thinking to try to move all the chips to the company’s side of the table. Instead, you need people who are expert on policy, who can build successful relationships with lawmakers and regulators, and who can be persuasive and content with compromise.

These are just three examples of different leadership competencies. To take to the next level, here are the questions you can ask to identify your company’s context:

What is our current position as an organization? What is the state of our various lines of business? Are our core services and/or products growing in sales? Are our customers happy? Do we need to rethink what we do and how we generate value? If the organization could talk, what would it say that it needs from me – and from everyone in our organization over the next year?

Keep it real. Use the following seven questions to flesh out your thinking (don’t rely on your initial thoughts; these questions deserve some time).

  1. What is the state of our various lines of business? Are our core services and/or products growing in sales or shrinking?
  2. If the organization could talk, what would it say that it needs over the next year?
  3. What does that mean I should be doing more of? Less of?
  4. Given my earlier responses, what should be our priorities for the next year?
  5. How can I best help the people around me achieve these priorities?
  6. How should we be measuring our success?
  7. Based on my answers, what kind of leader do I need to be? What competencies or skills do I need that I don’t currently possess?

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