The context makes the leader.

Leadership Thought 9Each situation has it’s own challenges and rules and leadership adapts to it. “Leadership is like a chameleon”, spoke Dr. Peter Piot as he received the leadership award in 2010 from the Flemish Management Association. “Chameleons adapt to the environment, have 360° view, hold still patiently and have a great sense of timing to strike.” “Leadership relates to the context as water to it’s recipient,” says Philippe Naert. “I don’t believe in leadership that fits all organisations.”[i] Leading from the middle in an organisation is different from leading from the top or leading from the board of directors. Leading a SME is different from leading an international business. Leading consultants is different  from leading a hospital.

We tend to glorify successful leaders. “We remain stuck in old images of heroic individualism”, identify Pearce and Conger an important obstacle for a more realistic and shared view on the leadership works. We keep on looking for the ultimate recipee or model. Books as ‘The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership’ or “The seven habits of highly effective people” still dominate the bestseller lists of leadership. The reality is different. Each situation has it’s challenges and defines the solutions. Each leadership testimonial I collect starts with the context. There are as many leadership models as there are people who take up responsibility in a difficult situation.

Expertise, detailed knowledge of the situation is therefore a necessary condition for leadership. Leadership starts with ‘diagnosing the system’ as Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky [ii] say. Leadersip respects complexity: “Analyzing the behavior of a nonlinear system is like walking through a maze whose walls rearrange themselves with each step you take.” [iii] And therefore moves consciously. “Fools rush in where angels fear to thread,” as the poet Alexander Pope framed it so beautifully. A leader who doesn’t take the particularities of the context into account only has virtual or destructive impact.

Any comment?

[i] Philippe Naert, dean of Antwerp Management School, during an informal leadership interview
[ii] HEIFETZ, R., GRASHOW, A. & LINSKY, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, p. 26.
[iii] GHARAJEDAGHI, J. (1999). Systems Thinking. Managing chaos and complexity. A platform for designing business architecture. Boston: Butterworth, Heinemann,  p. 51.


About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
This entry was posted in 19 leadership thoughts, 9. Context & modesty, Academic insights & evidence, English and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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