5 minute read

What is effective leadership? It's all about context


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10Eighty helps individuals to maximise their potential and helps organisations to harness that potential. We are experts in developing leadership capability and helping organisations increase employee engagement


What constitutes good leadership is a perennial theme discussed by the HR community. Management consultancy McKinsey point out that a great deal has been written about Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Shackleton, and countless other celebrated leaders. The volume is overwhelming but what emerges is that one leader’s experience may be completely inapplicable to another’s.

In essence, leadership is only leadership because followers share an understanding that an act by a particular person in a specific setting constitutes leadership. The context of the performance of leadership is inseparable from the actions of leading. In reality leadership happens at all levels within an organisation. The chief executive may be charged with the strategic direction and control of operations but the receptionist or security guard who prevents or solves a problem is also acting as a leader. In fact, junior-most employees may have the best insight into customer needs and levels of satisfaction. The CIPD points out that “employees without formal managerial responsibility are now expected to treat the organisation’s agenda as their own, lead from the front line and do ‘the right thing’ for the customer and for their employer, sometimes without time to consult up the organisational hierarchy”.

Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, says: ”There is no single characteristic that defines great business leaders. There are many paths to success”. Leadership is context-sensitive, an effective leader in one era may be quite different from being an effective leader in another.

Situational, not scripted

When we talk about leadership development it is important not to forget the context of the workplace, the employees, and the work overall. The McKinsey study points out that “people seeking to lead companies effectively and for organizations seeking to develop managers who can deploy different kinds of leadership behaviour when appropriate, recognising and responding to a company’s health is far more important than following scripts written by or about great leaders”.

Context is more easily defined than leadership. Context comprises such things as organisational values and cultures, social and professional relationships and interactions, the influences, drivers and local, national and international trends. Some are conscious influences, others are subliminal, but such things impact on how leadership is enacted within the organisation. The CIPD suggests that even where individuals have the capability to lead, organisational factors may affect their ability to respond to the external context. These factors are:

  • Hierarchy and bureaucracy undermine devolved, front-line leadership.
  • Short-term, bottom-line focus overshadows priorities of delivering quality.
  • Individualism in reward and accountability hinders collaborative working and creates inertia.
  • ‘Us’ and ‘them’ mentality obstructs the potential benefits of workforce diversity.

Nobody thinks that rigid hierarchies, micro-management or personality cults are evidence of good leadership; rather that healthy organisational leadership affords support for colleagues and subordinates, alongside understanding of their needs and aspirations. Leaders of successful organisations empower employees to aspire by setting stretch goals which inspire the achievement of potential.

Good leadership makes all the difference because, as Bazigos, Gagnon and Schaninger suggest, “leaders who embrace agility and seek different perspectives to help ensure that their companies don’t overlook possibly better ways of doing things”. So leadership development should be driven by and embedded in the context and challenges that leaders in the organisation face. The focus is on organisational relationships, connectivity and collaboration, employing agile systems and flexible practices in the face of a dynamic environment.

Coping with constant change

All too many leadership development programmes fail to articulate a perspective on leadership that goes beyond competencies, behaviours and values approach to consider the context in which leadership is exercised. In a paper for the King’s Fund Kim Turnbull James offers a clear picture of great leadership, which is “leadership creates an environment where new knowledge – collective learning - can be co-created and implemented rather than just as the implementation of a top leader plan”. After all, the culture of an organisation is dynamic and will be in a state of constant change.

So, leadership is not a set of behaviours that can be prescribed and applied on a one size fits all basis. Senior managers need self-awareness, a commitment to personal development and an appropriate skill set but they also need to be able to learn and adapt to changing circumstances – to understand and respond to their particular contexts and enact the skills and capabilities required for a given situation and time.

Turnbull James suggests that “identifying individuals who have leader potential is not the (only) solution. Leadership development ‘in context’ does not just mean individual leadership development adapted to a specific locale, but means people from that locale coming together to learn to lead together and to address real challenges together”.

10Eighty recommend that in developing leadership programmes, organisations need to look at the appropriate options for their needs in terms of leader and leadership development so as to help individuals identify with their role as a leader at work and empower them in developing the skills they need to adopt with colleagues and team members to create the change the organisation wishes to achieve. Understanding of context, mediates and defines the enactment of leadership in the organisation.

Context and culture

A leadership development programme to future-proof the organisation needs to address:

  • What constitutes effective and authentic leadership;
  • The challenges to leadership in the current contexts and environment;
  • Encouraging reflective practice and self-reflection to develop an awareness of diversity and personal leadership contributions;
  • The shared meaning and values that shape organisational culture and how it is situated in a complex environments;
  • Technical and interpersonal skills for effective team membership or leadership of a team.

You can’t ignore context when talking about leadership development because it is widely accepted that we learn best when able to connect new information and skills to personal experience (Hull 1993). Leadership development needs to be thought of as an integral component of organisational strategy and key to creative thinking and cross-functional problem-solving.

I have long championed the notion that self-awareness, or self-insight, is essential characteristic of effective leaders. London and Maurer suggest that “leaders need self-awareness to know what’s happening with their own emotions, maintain a positive state, keep distressing emotions out of the way, be empathetic, and prime positive emotions in others” (London and Maurer, 2004). Self-awareness is key to being able to manage oneself and choose behaviours which encourage certain behaviours from followers, resulting in effective leadership performance. Richard Bolden, of Exeter University, warns that self-awareness should encourage leaders to be curious about the self in relation to others, and to hold that self-knowledge lightly, with humour and compassion for both self and others.

Leadership at all levels

Good leadership relies on knowledge of good people management practice and skills, the ability to communicate, authenticity and openness, such attributes are critical to effective leadership. Peter Cheese of the CIPD says we need to do a better job of developing leadership capabilities at all levels: “Managers need to be leaders as well, to engage and get the most out of their teams, to manage the conflicts and issues, to ensure alignment to purpose and values, and to recognise individuals in a diverse world”.

It’s important to define what the organisation hopes to achieve through leadership development. It may be to grow the next generation of senior leaders by identifying and developing strategic leadership potential or, perhaps, to achieve enhanced employee productivity and devolved decision-making responsibility. Alignment with organisational strategic objectives is crucial; think about all the stakeholders in the process: leaders and followers, and the context in which they interact.

Developing talent should be viewed as part of organisational culture, and leadership development programmes that harness super-charge potential need to be connected to strategy in order to deliver real results for the organisation. At 10Eighty we aim to develop and prepare leaders for changing roles and business needs.

The last word goes to Dan Pink who says we need to encourage “leadership that takes a step back and says, 'How can I help other people lead?”

Published on The People Space 7 May 2020

Leadership is not a set of behaviours that can be prescribed and applied on a one size fits all basis

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