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Leadership is Contextual

| August 4, 2020

by Brian McDonald

Leadership Is Contextual

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, President of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at [email protected].]

Have you ever been to a country where you needed to drive on the left side of the road?  How many times did your brain overrule your intention and steer you back to the familiar pattern you learned?  Have you ever tried to drive a nail with a wrench because you didn’t have a hammer?  Did you ever find yourself consulting people at work when what they really wanted was a clear decision on the needed direction?

During this leadership crisis are you relying on your tried and true ways of operating or have you been adaptive enough to recognize the context has shifted thus requiring a different leadership attributes?
The MOR Leadership Framework starts out with a recognition that Context Matters. Leaders need to understand the contextual environment and adapt their leadership to meet the challenges or to seize the opportunities concurrent with their tenure.  Yet many leaders have a style that is deeply ingrained and either aren’t aware they need to adapt or they are guided back to familiar patterns.
During the financial downturn in 2008-2009 leaders at numerous universities needed to act more decisively and execute more quickly. The Great Recession is an example of leaders adapting to the context they found their institutions in during what turned out to be dramatic downturn in the economy.

The current context is far more complex for leaders.
We have COVID-19 threatening our communities, our nation, as well as the world both in terms of health and the resulting economic fallout. These two developments are taking an enormous toll on our society as well as our organizations. Though these events may be demanding all of a leader’s (or leadership team’s) attention, there is an increasing recognition this is also a long overdue time to address issues of systemic racism.
These combined challenges along with the accompanying uncertainty could overwhelm most any organization and the people trying to guide them through these turbulent times. During such passageways it is critical to recognize when the context calls for a different leadership approach.  Changing times are a critical point to revisit and ensure we are using the most appropriate attributes or tools in the most productive ways.  We don’t want to be using a hammer when we need a wrench.
What attributes are most critical given the context shifted so dramatically?
Getting up on the balcony so that you can see the context changing.  What is happening in the broader environment?  It is too easy to be caught up focusing on the day to day and miss what may be critical to the future.
Strategic thinking is all the more important when there is great uncertainty.  The need to continuously play out different scenarios is a critical skill leaders at all levels are doing constantly in this current situation.
Navigating the ambiguity is what makes scenario planning difficult and why it is important to elevate to the balcony frequently.  Ascending to the balcony allows you to get a current read of the environment and gather new information so that you have as good a read of the current state to base the latest update on.
Agility and adaptability combined will help leaders adapt to the changing circumstances rather than get wedded to a certain course of action that turns out to be based on outmoded information or assumptions.

  • Agility to move quickly and easily.
  • Adaptability in adjusting to new conditions.

Communicate consistently to provide as much clarity and transparency as possible. During times of uncertainty people crave information and in the absence of such will oftentimes make up their own stories.
In a recent panel with five CIO’s they each identified critical attributes at this time.  A common theme is all of these focus on the people aspect of our work as leaders.
“Help people stay engaged. Help people stay connected and appreciated for the value they are contributing.”  Lois Brooks, CIO and Vice Provost, UW Madison
“We still have to deliver the needed results. If we are to do this well. we need to support, coach, empathize and demonstrate compassion to those who are challenged during these times.”   Cathy Curley, CIO, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, University of Michigan
“Empathy is one of the more important attributes we need during these times. People, your co-workers, your constituents are all coming from very different places. People are under stress. We need to be empathetic to help them through this.” Melissa Woo, Senior Vice President & CIO, Michigan State University
“Continue to Build Relationships.  It is more important than ever to ensure you connect with people and build the relationships that enable you to get the initiatives that are critical to the university accomplished.” Mike Hofherr, Vice President & CIO, the Ohio State University

“Stay Balanced.  As leaders we need to show up focused and confident. In order to do this we need to have the ability to stay balanced. Much of the university’s business, if not all of it, is dependent on technology and IT. We need to make this work, and as leaders of IT, we need to stay healthy both mentally and emotionally, be fully present and show up with ideas.” Michele Norin, Senior Vice President and CIO at Rutgers
The current leadership crucible, as Warren Bennis would call this time, along with the months ahead will be challenging to navigate successfully. Make sure you and other members of your team have adapted and updated as needed to lead during the turbulent context we find ourselves in.
To help you and your team, we offer the brief self-assessment below.  Please use it to think critically about each of these leadership attributes and how you can most effectively develop and use them at this time.
Brian McDonald
President, MOR Associates
 Leadership Attributes Self Assessment

  Need to Develop      –      Well developed 
Getting to the Balcony 1 2 3 4 5
Strategic Thinking / Scenario Planning 1 2 3 4 5
Navigating the Ambiguity 1 2 3 4 5
Agility and Flexibility   1 2 3 4 5
Communicate Consistently 1 2 3 4 5
Keeping People Engaged 1 2 3 4 5
Empathy 1 2 3 4 5
Building Relationships 1 2 3 4 5
Staying Balanced 1 2 3 4 5

Someone I work with, _______________________________________, is quite good at  __________________________________________________ and I need to leverage or draw on their capability.  Try repeating this statement 2-3 more times for others on your team, ensuring you are best leveraging their talents.  After all, leadership is a team sport.