Context Leaders change the rules of the game


Didier Marlier

January 20, 2017

From Disruption to Engagement

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January 1st, whilst everyone home was recovering from their festive night, I came across an interesting clip from Ernesto Sirolli, a strong believer that NGO’s get it wrong because they seek to lead from the front and behave as “Content Leaders” towards those they wish to help. He describes his organization as people who “harness the passion, determination, intelligence, and resourcefulness of the local people”. I wondered: “What about harnessing the passion, determination, intelligence, and resourcefulness of the people we lead as well?”

In order to do so, Ernesto challenges three of the orthodoxies that many leaders still hold true but which end up destroying the value and entrepreneurial spirit which they would like to see emerge in their organizations:

  • From broadcasting to listening: Sirolli’s experience strongly suggests a major shift in leadership attitude, from a Content Leader (my license to operate comes from the fact that I know more/have more experience/seniority than you do) to a Context Leader (My skill is to gather the intelligence, unleash the passion of my people so that they go beyond my expectations). His whole speech questions our well-meaning attitude of “let me go and help them by telling them how to do it”. It is about humility, exploring, asking questions, showing respect and curiosity. It is about assuming that people intend to do well and we should try to understand why they don’t do it the way we would have expected (the tomatoes culture story is quite telling). In other terms, if we seek to create a truly entrepreneurial culture, we shouldn’t impose leadership, nor our advice: we should let our people ask us for it.
  • Seek the passion, train skills: Peter Schutz, the iconic Porsche North America CEO between 1981 and 1986, had this unusual advice for his HR department: “Hire Character, train skills!” Ernesto Sirolli means the same when he claims: “If people do not wish to be helped? Leave them alone”. Rather than looking for the perfect investment opportunity, for the few people who have the right diploma, he scouts for passion, energy and imagination. Rather than killing initiative and entrepreneurial spirits by his advice, Ernesto recommends that we reverse the flow: Find out what that person wants to do and provide them with the conditions to succeed. “leaving them alone” is not laissez faire nor abdication, but is about coaching, listening, asking questions, raise their self-esteem rather than threaten, rise fear or the bar. And yes, of course, it is still our responsibility if such people endanger the community, disrespect your authority, to “coach them out” as their negativity (if that is what it is) could risk contaminating the whole team.
  • Reduce distance, embrace informality: “We have no infrastructure, we meet them in cafés, restaurants… Entrepreneurs don’t like to join community meetings”… I am always saddened by the energy and creativity killers that traditional board rooms, business schools auditoriums or large PowerPoint loaded Conventions can be. As advocated several times in this blog, Power Distance does not help create collective intelligence, creativity nor energy. When leaders accept to embrace informality, get closer to their people, magic happens. Sirolli doesn’t try to be provocative or different: When he says “We try to become their friends”, he means “we seek to create connection, trust, transparency”.

If Ernesto Sirolli succeeds better than his competitors, he explains it not by a superior technology, financing, marketing or else but by having fundamentally challenged some assumptions on leading and engaging others. I hope this first post of the year is still on time to be included in some of your New Year’s resolutions…

Enjoy your Leadership Journey in 2017.




  1. Francois

    Thanks Didier for this, as always, thought provoking Ted talk. Listening to it I drew an immediate parallel with coaching. Great coach do not have plan or solutions for their clients, but instead they abandon their position of power, of knowledge…to be humble enough to meet their clients and their need with the intention to help them and not to control them. I am a strong believer that managing with a coach attitude can help companies reaching breakthrough they were never able to achieve before. Francois

    • Didier Marlier

      These words of wisdom have so much weight when they come from the mouth of a leader… Thank you dear François!

  2. Ivo Knottnerus

    Very inspiring TED talk Didier! I fully agree with his view. If we would all just help our neighbour, each and everyone of us. If we would really all just help our neighbour than we could just shut down all these money wasting international aid agencies and organisations. I loved his concept of patronising and paternising what we Western people do on the foreign communities we are trying to help. Very inspiring and thanks for sharing.

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you Ivo. I like the challenge to conventional “Content Leadership” that Ernesto presents. A great example in my view of “Context Leadership” in a context that has so much in common with business…
      Thanks a lot!

  3. Herberto Macoto Yamamuro

    Nice message Didier .
    I also do strongly believe on TED perspective of required leadership for XXI Century.
    Orthodox concept of leadership were formed looking for industrial Taylor model for beg of XX Century . Today ,is required collaboration of intelligence and innovation among people and leadership meaning is how to capture the motivation and promote the synergistic moving of those values toward a meaningful intent .

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you Herberto,
      I love the “collaboration of intelligence” you are mentioning as well as the meaningful intent.
      Looking fwd to reading more of you!
      Kind regards


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