What the Best Leaders Know: Context Matters

By John Kamensky

March 27, 2013

The traditional leader is seen as a charismatic hero, a lone figure, towering above the rest.  These are seen more in the military or business worlds – General George Patton, auto executive Lee laccoco, computer guru Steve Jobs.  But in reality, the success of a leader depends on the context, or environment, in which they work – the deck they’ve been dealt.  Even the heroes.

But as the context – the workplace, the workers, and the work – change (because we are in more of a knowledge-based economy) -- a different type of leader tends to be more successful, especially when the challenge is cross-agency and/or cross-sector. The “lone hero” isn’t always the most effective leader in this new world.  In fact, the best leaders tend to share leadership in any large-scale change effort.  For example:  

Each of these leaders were successful and used many of the same approaches in their leadership.  In fact, these steps were identified and cataloged.

Leading Change

Harvard Business Professor John Kotter wrote a book back in the mid 1990s – Leading Change – that centered around his observations of what successful change leaders had in common.  He describes eight steps leaders take.  These steps seem to be relevant to both an agency-centric environment as well as a cross-agency environment when a transformation is afoot:  

While these steps seemed to be common among successful leaders, how they were applied differed, largely because they face different operating environments.

Context Matters

Leadership occurs within a specific context – an emergency such as a flood, a political crisis such as those Lincoln faced, action on the battlefield, or in the board room.  There is also an organizational and legal context, as well, that shape the options you can take.  For example, Admiral Thad Allen’s leadership role in responding to Katrina depended on his legal authorities under the Stafford Act.  There, he had to defer to state and local leaders.  But the authority and accountability he had in the Gulf Coast BP Oil Spill were far more centralized and he had very different interactions with the same players.

Shaping an Organization

So, how a leader responds depends on that context.  But if a leader has some control over a situation – such as a planned organizational transformation, or participation in a broad, governmentwide initiative, then he or she can help shape the direction it goes.  Here are some elements that leaders in a shared leadership environment undergoing a transformation keep in mind:

Lord Nelson has been treated by history as a hero, but he was a pioneering network leader.   Today, new forms of shared leadership are evolving – where a leader serves as a visionary, a broker, a convener, a mediator.  And occasionally is recognized as a hero!

Other Blog Posts in This Series:

Image via Peshkova/Shutterstock.com

By John Kamensky

March 27, 2013