Contextual Leadership

HBS Working Knowledge writes: “Harvard Business School’s Leadership Initiative is attempting to answer these and other questions about the nature of leadership through its formation and study of the Great American Business Leaders database.” Excerpts from an interview with Tony Mayo, executive director of the Initiative:

When we examined our database of great business leaders by the decades in which they served their companies, the role of contextual intelligence became an increasingly compelling proposition.

. By analyzing our pool of great business leaders by decade, three distinct leadership patterns or archetypes emerged. We called these leadership archetypes Mold-Makers, Mold-Breakers, and Mold-Takers.

Makers essentially created or enhanced businesses that took advantage of the coalescing context of their times. They built businesses that thrived in a specific contextual framework and modified their operations and leadership styles as the contextual factors evolved. Some admittedly were in the right place at the right time, but it was often more than luck that made the difference between being merely successful and being wildly successful. In contrast, Breakers were business leaders who succeeded in breaking through the contextual mold of their times. They sought not to be constrained by the present conditions of their market; they were able to envision a future landscape for success. Finally, Takers were business leaders who saw value in industries and/or businesses that others thought were no longer viable. Takers took advantage of industry consolidations and often breathed new life into companies; extending business value well beyond what others thought was possible.

There is a strong tendency to search for a candidate who has a specific track record of success, but board members need to understand the context in which specific CEO candidates were successful. It is all too easy to ignore both the past contextual framework of success and the present one. Are they aligned? Does success in one context predict success in a new one? Would Sam Walton be as successful today? What about Michael Eisnerhas his time run out? Has he kept pace with the changing contextual framework? Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, boards tend to favor the “proven” talent, but often fail to ask “proven in what context?”

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.