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Posted on 29th June 2021
Contextual leadership will rule in a post-COVID-19 world

Leaders who are highly effective in one organisation may face very different demands in another role, and it’s all because of their sensitivity to context, say Professors Andrew and Nada Kakabadse.

Post-Covid leadership should be sensitive to the online fatigue that’s being experienced by a vast number of employees, alongside newly-invigorated desires to achieve an improved work-life balance.

These scenarios are further complicated by a loss of interconnectedness after more than a year of reduced face-to-face time. Nothing prepared leaders or their employees for the constantly changing dynamic of the pandemic. Several lockdowns later, this ripple effect has taken its toll on many who are striving to keep going in the face of daily uncertainty.

A significant number of people are likely to struggle with reintegrating into normal life. ‘COVID-19 anxiety syndrome,’ or fear of contracting the virus may have a long-lasting impact on the mental health of those who consider themselves at high risk of the disease.

Some employees will remain concerned about mixing with others, touching things in the office, being in busy spaces and using public transport. Some people will be highly aware of the threat of catching the virus, while others will find it hard to disengage from these threats, making a return to office work harder.

How does the context-sensitive leader fit into this picture, and what are the advantages they hold over more traditional approaches to organisational direction-setting?

Quite simply, successful leaders always pay attention to the skills they need to lead, as well as the skills that help dictate how they lead. Context is the often overlooked, but critical issue impacting leadership decision-making at all levels. After the pandemic recedes the strongest organisations will be those that have thrived on critical thinking, creativity and resilience. All of this is recognisable in leaders who exhibit a sensitivity to context, exceptional communication skills, empathy and compassion.

As the world gradually recovers from the worst of COVID-19, the emerging business emphasis is too often placed on organisational reconstruction, rather than restoration. Numerous leaders are looking for recovery solutions by investing in technology, with Artificial Intelligence and automation at the forefront of strategies to reinvigorate decimated organisations and recoup profits.

Ethical concerns over increased AI reliance
Although technology can improve people’s lives and workplace management, it can also serve to enslave and control through overt and covert monitoring or goal setting, often minus any ethical quotient or sense of wellbeing. For example, AI-systems such as Cerebral and ActiveTrack are used to control and regulate employees’ online activities.

The increased use of Microsoft Teams and virtual collaboration technologies illustrate the importance of the digital ‘fluency’ leaders need to embrace. The rapid pace of adjustment to client interactions requires leaders to engage in and promote continuous learning. Other examples include Mentimeter (real-time polling); Kanban boards (an online project-management tool), and Slack (a business communication platform). These and similar devices are becoming a daily feature of most remote worker toolkits.

The successful implementation of technology demands a new form of ‘context conscious leadership,’ which demonstrates an awareness of the value context offers, while promoting varied organisational perspectives and approaches that often challenge old assumptions of leadership development.

In newly-emergent workplaces, facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives, despite inherent obstacles and challenges, demonstrates only partial self-awareness.

The objective should be to understand contextual strengths and sensitivities which can then be harnessed in a way that generates sustainable results. Middle management layers carry the deepest burden as they have to make strategy devised by top management work, meaning middle leaders need to exhibit contextual sensitivities and an understanding of employees.

Powerful macro-level factors, such as external market conditions, including speed of change, degrees of complexity, understanding tensions and positive relationships all shape organisational context and are mandatory for sustainable success.

This sentiment was captured by one Chair who, as part of our ongoing research into the challenges faced by leadership and top teams, said: “If you know the people you lead, and know what the business is, you can provide much more value to the organisation than just understanding the listing rules’ requirements.”

Understanding context ultimately determines where corporate practices facilitate diversity, or successfully acquire new talent in today’s increasingly ideologically-polarised workplaces.

The immorality of hero leader worship
Communication, one of the most valued leadership skills, may be constrained in remote environments as workers are either reluctant to participate in video meetings, or are bandwidth restricted.

There is a greater need for empathy and resilience on all sides of the leadership-employee relationship. Both parties can benefit from working closely together to navigate the ambiguity left in, we hope, the wake of COVID-19 and its ongoing impacts on the workplace.

In Western cultures, it is far more common for a person to present themselves as a robust individual with an independent leadership-style. Self-assured, charismatic, ‘hero’ leadership is intended to inspire followers to higher levels of loyalty and performance.

While this approach has been deeply embedded in leadership mythology since biblical times, the outcomes largely point towards unfavourable and immoral results. Both science and the majority of our daily experiences suggest the best leaders are those who strive towards interconnectedness and interdependence.

Leadership focused on individualism - the preferences, needs, achievements and passions of one person at the top – is no longer desirable in the context of post-COVID-19 socio-economic realities. Those who assign fixed, enduring traits to targets, and measurable performance of the past few decades are unable to help with a sustainable effort to rebuild the economy.

The outdated tendency to search for hero leaders, especially the CEO, and ever more precise tools for assessing leadership skills further reinforces the view that leaders can be universally successful in any position.

Instead, attention should be directed by the needs, norms and duties to communities and societies. Leadership must be sensitive to, and focused on contextual evidence, rather than political-correctness. The future lies in gauging stakeholders’ sentiments, capabilities and goals.

Trust – the most important contextual consideration
Context-sensitive leaders pay attention to significant issues in the detail, and also attend to smaller points within big issues. For example, they excel in attending to the most important contextual consideration - trust.

No longer having a workday punctuated by ad hoc water-cooler moments, lunch runs, or even just commuting has an impact on many people’s wellbeing.

While a leader’s ability to have a direct impact on employees might seem limited, the former can make great gains by demonstrating empathy, understanding and awareness to those operating in the remote and augmented workplace. If done poorly this relationship can negatively impact employee wellbeing and trigger additional stress.

Trust implies a relationship in which the leader passes over discretionary powers, such as organisational sustainability. By doing so leaders accept their vulnerability while maintaining the confidence that others will do no harm. Such levels of trust are critical in enabling leaders to act interdependently, relying on others’ decision-making in increasingly complex organisations.

Despite this, events of the past few decades have shown that the leaders of many prestigious organisations, even those with excellent training such as General Electric, have produced mixed results at best. When successful GE leaders moved into roles at other companies many underperformed, suggesting that if leadership skills are transferable, the differences are rooted in context.

Future workplaces will never be the same again. Consequently, the role of leadership continues to be pivotal in steering organisations through crises to emerge stronger to drive long-term success and sustainability for their organisations. Those leaders who have had to navigate the pandemic recognise that they need to focus attention on employee wellbeing, reassess their priorities and adapt to continued change to drive productivity while sensitively supporting employees.

Identifying and overcoming contextual constraints
Devising context-sensitive leadership approaches to change requires a detailed understanding of associated constraints and enablers, while also recognising contextual complexity and sensitivities.

The connection between the context of a leadership role and the set of capabilities, experience, and style a leader needs to be effective in that position rests on leaders who often form and learn from their early-experiences.

For businesses facing a changing competitive landscape, getting the strategy right can be the critical challenge a new leader has to address. Alternatively, resources could be the overriding obstacle for an organisation in the aftermath of losing a talented workforce. Only by carefully considering and understanding the obstacles and contextual complexities involved can a leader and their organisation move forward.
Post-COVID-19 context-sensitive leadership is the only option to reinvigorate and regenerate bonds of trust and belonging. Context-sensitive leaders usually rise out of challenging circumstances and personal austerity themselves. This prepares them to demonstrate both humility and an ability to read the big picture, its constraints and potential.

Leadership objectives need be focused on wider measures of success than just profit. The underlying enablers of a post-COVID-19 workplace will be digital acceleration and new workplace patterns. It is essential for leaders to link economic recovery with the associated impacts on the environment, such as reduced travel, and focus more on staff wellbeing and other social performance indicators.

Also on the agenda should be development and support to help leaders find the balance between the skills that gained success in a pre-COVID-19 world, and its aftermath, which may necessitate relearning and sharpening skills including remote team leadership and conducting talent and performance reviews virtually.

The contextual leader will understand daily human experiences which will provide a fulfilling connection to those they encounter and leave them awakened and inspired. These are compelling experiences that embody the need for appropriate action, discerning which way and how to proceed, and being able to build a significant consensus for action.

Although this approach may be viewed as a ‘service route,’ rather than an avenue to power, context-sensitive leaders naturally attain great authority because of their inherent intelligence.

They sense changing circumstances and associated business opportunities and challenges. They also harness the sentiments of those living in that context. In crafting their strategy to shape and fit a community’s identity, their agendas are reflected as an expression of that persona. Without context sensitive leadership to promote collaborative ways forward in virtual and face-to-face environments, the organisation is at risk of losing its spirit and the creative energy behind teamwork.

A version of this news story first appeared in Board Agenda magazine.