Five key skills of an effective context leader

“It depends on the context.”

How often have you heard a coaching client use this phrase? In the standard definition, context is “the situation within which something exists or happens.” It’s the setting or environment that surrounds an event and provides the framework within which the event can be understood.

All of us make decisions based on our broader understanding of a situation. We bring together experiences, skills and knowledge to provide a viewpoint or perspective that is uniquely ours; we rely on this to make sense of the world around us. This is how we usually think about context.

In the modern workplace, we need a new and expansive definition of this term. I use the expression “context leader” to describe those leaders who can scan their environments and successfully form new insights, bringing together past experiences and new input. Context leaders synthesize data and create new connections, using their consolidated perspective to make better, more informed, and more inclusive decisions. And they share this context openly to scale their leadership across the breadth and depth of their organization.

Five key skills of an effective context leader

Because of the speed at which we need to make decisions, context leadership is becoming increasingly important. The amount of data in existence is rapidly increasing – a recent IBM study indicates that 90% of the world’s data has been created in the past two years. Additionally, researchers predict that 65% of today’s primary school students will hold jobs when they graduate that don’t yet exist. Many people use the term VUCA to describe this rapidly moving world: Coined by the US military, VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

In a VUCA world, our coaching clients can no longer rely solely on subject matter expertise. The knowledge we have has a shorter lifespan than in the past. And there is far too much of it to not be highly adaptive. So even those leaders who are specialists need to play another, equally essential role of consolidation, filtering, and synthesis. And this is where new leadership behaviours come into play: Context leaders need new skills that help them manage incredibly complex organizations that are operating in a volatile, uncertain climate – but in a lean and agile way. Here are five key social leadership skills that are required of a modern context leader:

Transparency: Context leaders must create clarity around mission and vision that the organization can align around, and must share this openly with the broad organization. This shared perspective can help them scale to ensure a broader set of people, including those outside their direct organization, are working toward a shared and common purpose.

Inclusiveness: Hierarchical decision making is frequently too slow to be effective in an agile environment. Decisions that have to travel up the organization for approval and back down again for implementation create bottlenecks and delays that can cause companies to lose to their competition. Inclusive decision making, with accountability that is spread more widely and deeply, is more effective.

Curiosity: The VUCA world moves too fast to rely solely on subject matter expertise. Great context leaders need to develop deeper curiosity, asking open questions to gain new insights, while growing their people and sharing responsibility with their teams. We need to support leaders in developing their skills at asking curious questions, and helping their team members to draw new, stronger conclusions. Ultimately, we should support leaders in developing a coaching approach to management.

Authenticity: Context leaders have to create strong connections with people across their organizations, and a foundation for this connection is authenticity. By approaching situations in a way that is aligned with their values, and presenting their vision in a way that authentic, leaders can help a broader organization align to a shared context.

Courage: Finally, it takes guts to forego direct ownership of decisions and share responsibility more broadly across the organization. It feels risky to stop playing the expert role and step into a role of coach or collaborator. But these changes are needed to leverage the diversity of organizations, empower employees and achieve stronger business results.

Every day, we make decisions, large or small, within a specific context. But in the face of VUCA, this context is constantly shifting. Businesses today need people who are prepared to step into a new form of leadership, using stronger social skills of open, inclusive communication and a collaborative and curious working style to lead their organizations to stronger business results.

Originally published in a blog post for the International Coach Federation


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