Kings and queens of context

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

Inflexibility is leadership suicide. Look back to Henry Ford who stuck rigidly to his policy of mass production and limited choice for consumers. It worked – for a while. Having given the market what it wanted, Ford presumed that more of the same was also what it required. He was reputed to have kicked a slightly modified Model T to pieces, such was his commitment to the unadulterated version. When other manufacturers added extras, Ford kept it simple and dramatically lost ground. The company’s reliance on the Model T nearly drove it to self-destruction. Things had moved on, the world had changed.

The most disappointing and perplexing thing about leadership is that it depends. It depends on circumstances. It depends on other people. It depends on timing. It depends on a plethora of elements over which the humble and human leader has very little control.

What it depends on most is the context. The best leaders are kings and queens of context. Either their timing is right (often repeatedly) or they are able to shape the context to fit their own leadership style.

Rather than impose themselves on the group, leaders have to find a way to lead that fits in with the group.

‘Inevitably, the leader has to invent a leadership style that suits the group,’ leadership guru Warren Bennis told us. ‘The standard models, especially command and control, simply don’t work. The heads of groups have to act decisively, but never arbitrarily. They have to make decisions without limiting the perceived autonomy of the other participants. Devising and maintaining an atmosphere in which others can put a dent in the universe is the leader’s creative act.’

Different situations and contexts require different styles of leader. This is the essence of situational theory. From this comes contingency theory, in which situational variables are taken into account to select the most appropriate leadership style in a given set of circumstances.

In their work in the late 1960s Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard identified four leadership styles that could be used in different situations: Telling – an autocratic style for when subordinates appeared unable or unwilling to do what is required; selling – which is sometimes seen as a coaching-type style; participating – where there is shared decision making between the leader and followers, and the leader adopts a facilitating role; and delegating – which, once the leader has identified the task, involves handing responsibility for carrying out a task to the followers.

Meanwhile, psychologist Fred E Fiedler outlined a contingency leadership model in which effectiveness relates to two factors: leadership style and situational control – the control and influence conferred on the leader because of the situation. These depended on a number of other factors, such as the relationship between the leader and followers, whether the task is a structured task or not, and how much power the leader has within the organization.

In truth, context is – like so much of leadership – something of a grey area. Context inevitably changes. Context can be fleeting. Bull markets become bears; comfortable niches are suddenly open to all comers; a rich inheritance can quickly be squandered. Little wonder then that some leaders are effective during one period and then not during another: Winston Churchill was an effective leader in wartime, but not in peacetime, for example. What works today, won’t work tomorrow.

But shouldn’t leadership be concerned with changing – or at least shaping – context? If context is the more powerful force, our entire idea of the power of leaders is turned on its head. If context is queen, how much power do leaders actually have?

‘To survive in the twenty-first century we’re going to need a new generation of leaders, not managers,’ said Warren Bennis. ‘The distinction is an important one. Leaders conquer the context – the volatile, turbulent, ambiguous surroundings that sometimes seek to conspire against us and will surely suffocate us if we let them – while managers surrender to it.

Context is the landscape through which a leader must navigate and guide their followers. Some landscapes are more rugged than others. Some have a neat road through them; others are uncharted. A gently undulating landscape can turn mountainous and treacherous. Some leaders are better at adapting to changing context than others.

Conquering the context is a lot to ask and harkens back to heroic notions of leadership. For most leaders the context is there to be shaped, adapted and influenced rather than conquered. Living with and leading within a particular context is a subtle art. The best leaders are able to fit in without seeming to do so. They are as apparently comfortable as fish in water – and it doesn’t appear to matter whether the water is crystal cold lake water or the murkiest, warmest sea water.

‘Great leaders are able to read the context and respond accordingly. They tap into what exists and bring more to the party. In management jargon, they add value. This involves a subtle blend of authenticity and adaptation; of individuality and conformity,’ Rob Goffee, co-author of Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? told us.

The thing with effective leaders is that do not simply react to context. They also shape it by conforming enough. This is the skill element. This involves knowing when and where to conform. Without this, leaders are unlikely to survive or make the connections they need to build successful relationships with others. To be effective, the leader needs to ensure his or her behaviors mesh sufficiently with the organizational culture to create traction. Leaders who fail to mesh will simply spin their wheels in isolation from their followers.

Goffee, and his co-author Gareth Jones, talk of ‘authentic chameleons’, leaders who are able to be true to themselves while tuning into the con-text of the organization and the moment. Such figures are in short supply.

Goffee and Jones cite former British prime minister Tony Blair as an exemplar of the breed, someone who was able to tailor his leadership behavior to fit in with an organization – the Labour Party – while being true to himself.

It all depends.


Fred Fiedler, Leadership (General Learning Press, 1971).
Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, Management of Organizational Behavior (Prentice Hall, 1969).
We interviewed Warren Bennis many times. Some of the interviews can be found in our book Leadership: Organizational Success through Leadership (McGraw Hill, 2013).
Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones’ work is best accessed in Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? (Harvard Business Press, 2006).

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