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Leadership Engagement Expert & Board Advisor

Are you a Content or a Context Leader?

by Didier Marlier on Thursday February 11th, 2016

Chances are that your “winning formula” (i.e. what you are praised for, what people value, expect and reinforce in you by their feedback) makes you a Content Leader, particularly if you are in the early stages of your career, if you are a specialist recognized for your technical, artistic or scientific knowledge. If you have taken over a new job, in a business you are not familiar with, if you pay attention not to micro-manage your people, if you believe that you need to create an intelligent organization rather than lead it from the front, chances are that your style is of a Context Leader.

Our education, from an early age, encourages us to excel at mastering knowledge. We learn things by heart, we practice exercises in class and study our homework back at our place. Exams are meant to test our acquisition and proper use of knowledge. I do not recall being congratulated by a professor for letting others provide the answer before me nor do a keep memory, even during my MBA, of seeing friends being awarded good grades for supporting me when I was lost in Finance classes (and others!) We are programmed to display content, prove our knowledge and this helps us being promoted.

We need Content Leaders. A company without Thought Leaders capable of provoking breakthrough, would be in deep trouble. Content leaders benefit from a solid experience, they are knowledgeable and can transmit their “savoir faire” to others. I wouldn’t recommend you to hire a Professional Services firm that does not count specialists in their ranks. Perfumers depend on the quality of a few “noses” as they are called, Sommeliers in the best restaurants need to be connoisseurs to shine in their profession… It is a must to gather knowledge. The market pays a heavy premium for knowledgeable people. It is good to be a “Content Leader”!

But will it be enough to succeed in the “Disruption Economy” where agility, innovation, speed, global view, connectivity are key? As I am sure you know, “intelligence” comes from two Latin words: Inter (between) and Legere (link, read, relate). Intelligence is the art of connecting things, people, knowledges or… intelligences. A “Context Leader” may be knowledgeable but she will, above all, connect people, their knowledge, their experience, their ideas. Some years ago, an interesting study, ordered by the “Magic Circle” law firms of London willing to know what the legal departments of their multinational clients valued the most in their providers, showed that global presence, price or knowledge had become hardly a “ticket to the game” and a  “licence to operate”. What clients valued above all was the capacity of their consultants’ team to work seamlessly with their own home teams… In other terms, knowledge/content was taken for granted and the differentiation would be made at the connection/intelligence/context level.

Virtually every consultant or speaker has used the famous 4 x 100 m 2003 race where the “underdog” (the French team) unexpectedly beat their US and Jamaican counterparts. I use it here just as a metaphor:

  • Intelligence vs Knowledge: The US runners represent “Knowledge leaders”. Intrinsically, they are faster and more “competent” than their French counterparts. So how could 4 athletes, each running for 100 m, lose against four other competitors who, individually are inferior? The French knew this and gave up the “Content individual battles” to focus on the “Context and Connection war”… They played a “collective intelligence” strategy rather than an “individual knowledge” tactic one. The French focused on winning the relay rather than 4 individual races.
  • Context vs Content: Look at the attitude (the most visible being the 3rd French runner) of each French athlete at the moment of passing the baton and after… Although they probably ran at 100% of their capacity, they still have the strength to shout, encourage and run along their starting colleague. The last relay is particularly moving: the 3rd athlete knows that Ms Arron starts her part behind the US athlete… So she “gives it all”! Watch the 3rd athlete shout and run as long as she can to accompany her partner… These athletes focused on the quality of connection (Context) rather than on their individual talent (Content).

Impossible to change my style? Some ten years ago, Korn Ferry ran a vast study on 120’000 leaders, seeking to extract what could explain why some of them succeeded in their careers and why some others’ went unexpectedly flat. The reason that strongly emerged was that, successful leaders were capable of challenging their past success formula. Those whose careers abruptly stopped seemed unable, unwilling to challenge their style and adapt to the new conditions. In our experience, the critical “tipping point” is whether or not you are willing to switch from Content to Context Leadership.

How do I become more of a Context Leader?

  • I listen for understanding rather than impose my views and opinions
  • I ask other questions rather than make blunt statements
  • I summarize what I hear at the intellectual and emotional level, rather than ignore it and try to rebuff the other person’s argument
  • I support parts of what they say and challenge others, rather than reject it all because my solution is best
  • I ensure a decision is collectively made rather than let things stay in the vague or impose my solution.

Enjoy your transformational Leadership Journey!

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