The Power of Context in Leadership Development

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We are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with a myriad of technological advances and innovation, yet so many leadership development techniques remain unchanged. The health and culture of an organisation is key, you can see this from the sheer investment organisations put towards leadership training every year. In 2019, according to TrainingIndustry.com $366 billion was spent on leadership training globally.

Leadership development is not a new concept to organisations, so why is there so much resistance to change? Often leadership programmes favour an endless sea of content, rather than pinpointing exactly what is relevant to the person/organisation.

Leadership training initiatives too often adopt the “one size fits all” approach, with the assumption that the same group of capabilities or style of leadership is appropriate regardless of industry, company culture or strategy.

One leader could be extremely successful in one environment and yet perform terribly in another. You wouldn’t expect Usain Bolt, to compete at an equal level to professional cyclist Ben Swift at a cycling race purely because Bolt is an Olympic athlete. So why would we expect leaders to apply generic leadership learning to a specific context and get the best results?

According to a report by McKinsey context is more important than content when it comes to leadership development.

“Companies can avoid the most common mistakes in leadership development and increase the odds of success by matching specific leadership skills and traits to the context at hand; embedding leadership development in real work; fearlessly investigating the mind-sets that underpin behavior; and monitoring the impact so as to make improvements over time.”

Lightbulb Moment 

In one previous organisation I led I was struggling with the concept of leadership learning as a sustainable part of our business strategy. I’d assembled a small group of my team to help me on an action research project to look within our own organisation on how we could achieve this.

The notion of context over content only hit me during a long-haul flight to Australia, it was one of those real ‘lightbulb’ moments, cruising 37,000 feet in the air whilst battling the urge to indulge in the on-flight entertainment. These conditions turned out to be the perfect combination to find the missing part of the puzzle; the conclusions to our in-house action research project.

Making context the foundation to our leadership learning turned out to be the insight we needed to create a framework for our new leadership development programme which worked at both the individual and organisational level.

Taking the time to understand the organisation and the people in it, our research team asked insightful questions, which enabled me to curate a leadership development framework called “Learning and Leading with Heart” which was the title for my masters research findings and dissertation at the time. This not only focused on the context, it brought about a cultural transformation as the organisation adopted the traits of the learning organisation .

The implementation of the framework resulted in a behaviour change which underpinned the organisational purpose and proposition. It created a more meaningful leadership learning environment for managers to be successful at work and develop their careers.

Following the implementation of the programme, the organisation accomplished improvements in safety measures, employee engagement and the delivery of ambitious growth plans. Achieving numerous external accolades such as recognition from RoSPA and reaching number 7 on the ‘great place to work’ list, making it a recognised brand name in the sector and beyond.

Changing the Leadership Development Status Quo

Over the years, I’ve observed the implementation of leadership development programmes in organisations I’ve led and companies I’ve supported. The programmes were valuable, but I always had the sense something was missing, and they weren’t as impactful as they could have been.

Even with a ‘diagnostic’ approach to start with, the interesting and informative content provided by the consultants we were working with, was more ‘sheep dip’ on an array of models and theories, activities and interactions. It felt exciting and applicable at the time however in hindsight, none of it could truly be related back to the work environment as it lacked context and the nuance of the day-to-day reality.

Context is inextricably linked to the leadership environment. If we fail to recognise this, we run the risk of doing exactly what the management guru Peter Drucker claims ‘there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all’.

To make best use of the leadership development investment, the environment and context need to be customised to each person in the organisation. Every leader has a different starting point based on experiences, values and beliefs. As a result, we interpret leadership content in a multitude of ways. This is often a missed opportunity in leveraging the impact and improvement which can minimise the investment made rather than leveraging it.

Learning about the importance of context in leadership development and business strategy and seeing the difference it makes, has placed both Culture and Context as fundamental factors in the Glassmoon approach to what makes organisations successful.

If you’d like to learn more and/or discuss any leadership challenges you are facing, please contact us here.