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My View of Contextual Leadership

My View of Contextual Leadership
by Sunit Rikhi on 10-28-2015 at 4:00 pm

 Go off and do something wonderful,” said Robert (Bob) Noyce, co-founder of Fairchild semiconductors and Intel Corporation. He was heard, and the quality of our lives has been elevated by the wonderful pursuits of skilled pioneers. Notice that Bob did not say, “Go off and become great leaders.” This is because great leaders of the past did not set out to be that. They set out to do wonderful things.

Bob and others became known as great leaders by those who were awed by their achievements. Many of us studied their lives in order to extract recipes of leadership. With such recipes, we try to cook ourselves into leaders. But we don’t need to cook ourselves into anything. We just need to focus our attention on cooking a finger-licking good meal alongside other cooks in the kitchen. We will do well to get rid of our fascination with how to become a good leader. That is not the goal.

Defining our career aspiration
Bob is fondly and justifiably remembered as the mayor of Silicon Valley. Back in the 1980s, I was fortunate enough to witness Bob pondering alone or talking to people in the backyard of Intel’s Santa Clara building 9, which is in the same campus on which we later built a monument in his memory and called it the Robert Noyce building. I was too young then to have had a meaningful conversation with him personally. The closest I came to interacting with him was a few pleasant exchanges, one of which involved helping him light his cigarette on a windy day.

I wonder how Bob would have defined “wonderful.” I think he would have said that a wonderful thing is an impactful result beneficial to humanity. And after we have done a wonderful thing, I imagine he would advise us to do the next wonderful thing and to never stop.

In line with this thinking, I have harbored a career aspiration of increasingly impactful results that are beneficial to humanity and are achieved through methods which generate goodwill with people. I believe this is a pretty good definition of effectiveness as it encompasses results, positive impact and goodwill – all crucial components of effectiveness.

At its core, effectiveness is made of three basic elements: Crave, Act, and Care. Craving drives passion for impact and the courage to pursue it. Action applies the sweat and discipline necessary to achieve the desired impact. Care helps us achieve it in a way that generates good will.

By the time we enter the workforce, we either have these three basic elements of effectiveness or we don’t. I don’t know of a way to teach an adult how to crave, act, and care.

I do think it is possible to optimize the balance of these elements when they exist in varying degrees, however. When you see the right balance in a person, you are witness to a powerful force fueling a limitless spiral of effective contributions from that person.

When you next meet with yourself, ask yourself these three questions: Do I crave? Do I act? Do I care? If the answer to these questions is an honest yes, go off and do something wonderful! And never stop. Humanity will thank you for it.

Enabling behaviors of effectiveness
Beyond the three elements of effectiveness, lie three key essential behaviors which can each be learned and honed through practice. These are to Lead, Follow, and Collaborate. Leading is the act of pointing to a wonderful thing, initiating the journey to it and directing/guiding along the way.

Following is to understand what is being pointed to and to do our part under guidance on the journey to it. Part of following is to lead the leader with one’s questions and vigilance.

Collaborating is the act of co-envisioning and co-creating a wonderful thing. Collaborating melds leading and following together into a beautiful dance. The dance fully leverages the motivations, knowledge and experience of participants as they hand the baton of leading to each other in real time.

Contextual leadership
Contextual leadership is knowing when and how to lead, follow and collaborate. What we do and when we do it is based on contexts at various levels.

The first, and the most important context, is the individual context. For each involved individual, this context includes the attributes of functional role, mandate, capability and career motivation for that individual. These attributes taken together and applied to the topic on hand determine the placement of leading or following batons in their hands for that particular topic. This does not imply that an individual’s behavior is constrained by these attributes. The attributes’ impact can be managed and the attributes themselves change, but it is important to understand the attributes to set the level of empowerment an individual exercises in any situation. Additionally, it is not only important for us to know our own context, but also that of our colleagues. And for that, curiosity and strategic disclosure in a trust-cushioned environment is essential.

Next is the topical context. The topic in a discussion, the problem being solved, or the new paradigm under creation demand very specific contributions for their own success. The intersection of this context with the individual context, when understood well by all involved leads to gliding ease with which an individual takes and gives the leading and following batons.

Finally, the environmental context. The attributes of this context include trends, constraints and opportunities in the socio-political, enterprise and market environments. A good understanding of this context shines the right light on the topical context to determine not only the nature and timing of wonderful pursuits. We need to know when to follow hard constraints and when to lead and collaborate on opportunities to bust current paradigms.

Wonderful results, in my experience, show up when creators crave, act and care. When they crave, act, and care they gracefully take turns leading, following, and collaborating as directed by context.

Happy pursuits!

Sunit Rikhi

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