Context is an often overlooked but crucial issue affecting leadership decision-making at all levels. And in a post-Covid world where the leadership focus is organisational reconstruction rather than restoration, context has become more important than ever before.
Many are looking for solutions in technology—AI and automation are the buzzwords of choice when it comes to rebuilding shattered businesses from the ground floor up.
Technology and AI threaten control
Although technology can improve workplaces and human lives, equally it can serve to enslave and control through overt and covert monitoring and goal-setting minus any sense of ethical quotient or sense of wellbeing.
As a result organisational and societal problems need to be resolved by people, who are in turn enabled by technology. We cannot go back to where we were before Covid-19. Rather, we have to find new ways to create a sustainable future.
This demands a new form of “context-conscious leadership”, meaning an awareness of the value that context offers, which promotes numerous perspectives and approaches to the organisation.
In newly emergent workplaces, facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives, despite inherent obstacles and challenges, demonstrates only partial self-awareness. The objective should be to understand contextual strengths and sensitivities which can be harnessed in a way that generates sustainable results.
Powerful macro-level factors—such as external market conditions, including speed of change; degrees of complexity; understanding tensions and positive relationships— all shape organisational context and are mandatory for sustainable success.
This sentiment was captured by one chair as part of our ongoing research into the challenges faced by leadership and top teams, who said: “If you know the people you lead, and know what the business is, you can provide much more value to the organisation than just understanding the listing rules’ requirements.”
Understanding context ultimately determines where corporate practices facilitate diversity, or successfully acquire new talent in today’s increasingly ideologically polarised workplaces.
Hero leaders—unfavourable and immoral
In Western cultures, it is far more common for a person to present themselves as a robust individual with an independent leadership style. Self-assured, charismatic, “hero” leadership is intended to inspire followers to higher levels of loyalty and performance.
While this approach has been deeply embedded in leadership mythology since biblical times, the outcomes largely point towards unfavourable and immoral results. Both science and the majority of our daily experiences suggest the best leaders are those who strive towards interconnectedness and interdependence.
Author Neil Gaiman captures this point succinctly in his comments on the butterfly effect: “A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.” Asian cultures, where personality is constructed and largely based on an individual’s interdependence model, have recognised this long before the West.
Leadership focused on individualism—the preferences, needs, achievements, and desires of one person at the top—is no longer desirable in the context of post-Covid socio-economic realities. Those who assign fixed, enduring traits to targets, and measurable performance of the past few decades, are unable to help with a sustainable effort to rebuild the economy.
The outdated tendency to search for hero leaders, especially the CEO, and ever more precise tools for assessing leadership skills further reinforces the view that leaders can be universally successful in any position.
Instead attention should be directed by the needs, norms and duties to communities and societies. Leadership must be sensitive to and focused on contextual evidence, rather than political correctness. The future lies in gauging stakeholders’ sentiments, capabilities and goals.
Context-sensitive leaders show trust
Context-sensitive leadership pays attention to significant issues in the little things, and also attends to smaller points within big issues. For example, which indicator is the most relevant contextual consideration? Trust!
Trust implies a relationship in which the leader passes over discretionary powers, such as organisational sustainability. By doing so leaders accept their vulnerability while maintaining the confidence that others will do no harm. Such levels of trust are critical in enabling leaders to act interdependently, relying on others’ decision-making in increasingly complex organisations.
Despite this, the events of the past few decades have illustrated that the leaders of many prestigious organisations, even those with excellent training such as General Electric, have produced mixed results at best. When successful GE leaders moved into roles at other companies many underperformed, suggesting that if leadership skills are transferable, the differences are rooted in context.
Contextual constraints in post-Covid leadership
Devising context-sensitive leadership approaches to change requires a detailed understanding of contextual constraints and enablers, while also recognising contextual complexity and sensitivities.
The connection between the context of a leadership role and the set of capabilities, experience and style a leader needs to be effective in that position, rests on leaders who often form early-experience and learn from these.
For businesses facing a changing competitive post-Covid landscape, getting the strategy right can be the critical leadership challenge. Alternatively, resources could be the overriding obstacle for an organisation in the aftermath of losing a talented workforce. Only after carefully considering and understanding the business challenges, as well as the contextual complexities involved, can a leader and their organisation move forward.
Post-Covid-19 context-sensitive leadership is the only option to reinvigorate and regenerate bonds of trust and belonging. Context-sensitive leaders usually rise out of challenging circumstances and personal austerity themselves. This equips them with not only a great dose of humility but also the ability to read the big picture, its constraints and potential.
They understand daily human experiences which gives them a fulfilling connection to those they encounter and leaves them awakened and inspired. These are compelling experiences that enable context-sensitive leaders to sense the need for appropriate action, discern which way and how to proceed and build a significant consensus for action.
Although this approach is seen as more of a service route, rather than an avenue to power, context-sensitive leaders naturally attain great authority in large part because of their inherent intelligence. They sense changing contextual circumstances, along with associated business opportunities and challenges, and harness the sentiments of those living in that context. In crafting their strategy to shape and fit a community’s identity, their agendas are reflected as an expression of that identity.
Nada Kakabadse is professor of policy, governance and ethics, and Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership, at Henley Business School.