Leadership Development

Developing Contextual Leaders Ready to Adapt in Dynamic Environments

Old-style leadership development worked at one time but not in the dynamic business environment in which change is constant. Contextual leaders can adapt their thinking and approaches to strategy and problem-solving to fit the circumstances.
— By Dave DeSouza

Organizations are constantly evolving and need leadership able to evolve decision-making and strategizing to effectively support what is happening in the corporate setting. In many cases, these same businesses adhere to a conventional training-centric process which is not focused on progressive learning and behaviors. There is little flexibility and the information presented is always behind what is actually unfolding in the organization.

As a result, managers, and by default their staff, are not prepared to advance in their thinking and perspectives, and ability to develop and support changed employee behaviors in a dynamic workplace.

Developing contextual leadership and vertical development of organizational leaders requires a learning-centric organization in which the method of development is flexible and leaders recognize opportunities to develop personally and to empower people. Given the transitioning demographics of the workforce, it is important to create a mix of older leaders with younger digital age leaders, the latter who are adept at learning “on the fly” through their technical competence and bring new perspectives to management.

Showing Adaptability Through Contextual Leadership
Contextual leadership, according to Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria, refers to the ability to understand and capitalize on an evolving environment, displaying a strategic perspective and an ability to develop others. Leaders with contextual intelligence can apply their knowledge to real-world situations and scenarios.

One contextual model of leadership summed it up by presenting a model that accounts for the “the interrelated social forces that combined to influence perceptions and expectations for the social phenomena known as leadership.”

The factors are environmental or what is occurring within the broader environment in which the organization operates (industry, geo-politics, etc.); organizational or the behaviors, social expectations, and ways of interacting that have been normalized over time as the acceptable ways (old-school leaders); and intra-interpersonal or the way “fit” has impacted depersonalization (self-categorized based on communal norms around acceptance, diversity and inclusion).

Leadership in this contextual model sees the role of leadership as a framing force of the individual and collective perceptions in relation to the organizational setting (context). Reality is not a set condition but rather a perceptual outcomes influenced by relationships. Change the context, and what is seen as effective leader behavior also changes.

The concept of contextual leadership embraces many principles that range from organizational cultural context to diversity and inclusion as a source of creativity. Contextual leaders can adjust their leadership style to fit the situation and understand the importance of providing learning opportunities to employees to become equally agile and flexible. Developing contextual intelligence is nearly impossible within the traditional training-centric approach because it does not offer opportunities to develop different leadership behaviors as appropriate.

Expanding Knowledge Through Vertical Development
A better approach is to develop a learning-centric organization in which development remains flexible; utilizes experiential learning; promotes creativity; and creates leaders who can leverage positive aspects of the organization to create value, like multiculturalism and multi-geographies of operation.

A person with contextual intelligence can recognize limitations and adapt that knowledge to an environment different from the one in which the knowledge was originally developed. Leaders need vertical development, which is focused on advancing a person’s thinking capability, so they can think in more strategic, systemic, and interdependent ways.

Developing contextual intelligence is not easy, and especially when long-term leaders have spent years or decades using the same leadership style and training-centered approaches to development.

Leadership development in a learner-centric model helps managers understand their own biases, build trust-based relationships with employees and peers, and develop a strategic perspective.
Contextual intelligence requires adjusting mental attitude and being open to new ideas. The manager can approach obstacles that were never encountered before, learn from them, and develop new ideas. The process applies to all types of changes. Going global or adding new markets, M&As, new technologies, responding to a business disruption due to environmental disasters, regulatory changes, innovation, and increasing labor force diversity are just some of the examples.

To develop contextual leaders through vertical development, it is important to mix new and existing leaders. Hiring or promoting people who are from different cultures and are diverse in other ways brings new perspectives to leadership, a key quality of contextual intelligence. Many assumptions and approaches of existing leadership (at least for people over 40 years old) are embedded in assumptions of the past.

Bias, in many ways, is deeply embedded in old-school thinking, so creating innovative solutions requires leaders who have an appreciation of the value of diverse perspectives. Diverse leaders can offer insights that traditional leaders would not experience unless working with a variety of people.

Learning While Leading Without a Script
In the new dynamics, instead of a focus on being a great leader, the leader focuses on creating context for others to succeed. This equates to managers who can deploy different types of leadership behaviors within context rather than following a script.

The manager becomes a coach and motivator, while personally learning at the same time. Leadership development in a learner-centric model helps managers understand their own biases, build trust-based relationships with employees and peers, and develop a strategic perspective.

There are a number of ways to get managers on track to developing contextual intelligence.

First, the mindset must be changed so that leaders are open to new perspectives. Simply adding younger leaders who work with older leaders is not enough. People of all ages must be willing to learn from each other because the bottom line is that contextual leadership is about inclusiveness. The organization can also utilize a number of tools, like simulations of changing organizational challenges and project–based experiential learning. to better understand how their perspectives and approaches impact outcomes. Bringing leaders together to explore differing mindsets is another useful step.

However, developing contextual leaders is not easy. For example, the organizational culture must support this approach to leadership or the organization must define the extent it wants leaders to serve as a force for culture change. The leaders must strategically fit the organization’s goals in terms of capabilities. The context is the organization itself.

For example, a company that wants to expand globally for the first time needs leaders who can change processes to support larger scaled operations, make faster decisions, and identify strategic opportunities. Leadership is situated in a unique context within each organization which includes the nature of the business, the capabilities and motivations of peers and staff, strategic imperatives, relationships with fellow managers, existing culture, and many other factors.

For this reason, it is not possible to say “do this” in order to develop the type of leadership needed for competitive success. The development of contextual intelligence is a general ability that is applied specifically within context of the organization. It is the ability to utilize that mindset within changing contexts that is most important.