Leadership in Context: How to Lead in Any Situation

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Like the great Rosetta Stone helped us break through seemingly impenetrable language barriers, the concept of “leadership in context” could help us break through the leadership development barriers that prevent us from becoming the best leaders we can be in the workplace.

By “leadership in context,” I mean the idea that we can create a comprehensive framework of leadership styles based on the contexts in which a person must lead a team. The central principle of leadership in context is that who, what, when, and where you lead determines how you lead.

There are five different leadership contexts, which can be easily remembered with the acronym “SOTOA”:

  1. S = Self context
  2. O = One-to-one context
  3. T = Team context
  4. O = Organizational context
  5. A = Alliance context

To build a foundation for great leadership, we must recognize each context and adapt our leadership methods and behaviors accordingly.

Observe your daily leadership routine. You are most likely not in the same context during every interaction you have throughout the day. Sometimes you have to lead yourself through a project (self). Other times, you’ll have a one-to-one conversation with someone you lead (one-to-one). Some days you have to lead a team (team), while others you have to head up an all-unit meeting (organizational). Sometimes you have to lead a big partnership to benefit your organization (alliance). Your success in any situation depends on understand the context and what it calls for.

Leading Yourself

Leading yourself is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated leadership contexts. If you can influence yourself to get out of bed in the morning and get a project done at work, you’re already on your way to becoming an expert in this context.

Becoming a successful self-leader not only boosts your own performance, but it can also inspire the people around you to become better leaders of themselves. If they see what you’re doing is working, they will pursue the same level of excellence.

To develop your self-leadership, you have to take into account not only what you’re doing and what you need, but also what your organization needs from you. Self-leadership requires balance between pushing yourself to be the best for yourself and pushing yourself to be the best for your team.

As a self-leader, you’ll have three choices any time you tackle a task or project:

  1. Do it your way.
  2. Do it the organization’s way.
  3. Do it in a way that helps yourself and the organization grow and improve over time.

The key is knowing when to choose one approach over the other. Whichever you choose, know how to turn the situation into something that benefits your leadership ability.

Leading in the One-to-One Context

When you’re talking to a coworker, are you thinking about how the conversation can help them become better in their role? Or are you thinking about ending the conversation as quickly as possible so you can get back to your own work? Prioritizing the former over the latter is the distinguishing mark of someone who leads in the one-to-one context. 

When you’re working in this context, you must focus your efforts and actions on teaching, encouraging, guiding, and supporting the person you’re talking to. Have focused one-to-one conversations, discuss goals, give feedback and recognition, and establish trust. This will build both your own one-to-one leadership and the other person’s self-leadership.

The one-to-one context is like dancing with the person you’re talking to. You must constantly assess your partner’s needs and provide leadership that fits the needs of the moment. When you get the steps of the dance right, you will help the individual reach their own goals.

Leading in the Team Context

There is a difference between leading a team and leading a group. A group is composed of people who, on their own, are able to reach their goals and succeed. The members of a team, on the other hand, rely on each other to reach their goals.

Being a successful team leader depends on whether you’re working with a team mindset or group mindset. Incorrectly assuming you’re in one or the other and using the corresponding methods could mean failure to reach goals. For example, if you’re working in a group, using team-based leadership is a waste of time because the group members aren’t pursuing a shared goal together.

Some of the skills you use to organize a group will work to organize a team, but the first step in organizing either is understanding whom you’re trying to lead and what the goals are. Leading high-impact teams requires organizing the individual abilities of the team members and using those abilities to set everyone up for success.

The most effective teams comprise different types of team members who can put their disparate knowledge and abilities together in a cohesive way. To properly understand and categorize your team members, it helps to use the DISC behavioral profile:

  1. Dominant: Completes tasks, may overstep authority, likes challenges
  2. Influencing: Strong communication skills, motivational, people-oriented
  3. Steady: Reliable, team player, traditional approach, slower paced, cautious
  4. Compliant: Fact- and data-oriented, detail-oriented, traditional approach, more passive

It’s easy to get frustrated when you walk into a team that is unclear about its goals and everyone’s role in achieving them. However, when a successful team leader who understands the combined skills and talents of the individual members is at the helm, defining and reaching goals becomes a little easier.

Leading in the Organizational Context

Leaders in the organizational context have the primary goal of shaping the environment for the people who think, feel, and work in that organization. They aim to create spaces where all members of the organization can develop their abilities. Leadership at this level must be sophisticated, as the issues it tackles are quite complex.

As a leader in the organizational context, you need to value equally the economic health of the organization and the effectiveness and happiness of the people working there. This requires a strong perspective that understands how each part of the whole organizational framework — and each member of the organization — supports the others.

Organizations are created in response to the demands of a certain market. The organization develops a vision, values, and principles to guide its response to those demands. Each one of these things is critical to the overall organizational framework. Each component supports the others, and together they form a system of processes, performance, and infrastructure. To lead in this context, you must work with each part of the system.

Being an organizational leader requires a clear understanding of what happens when something goes wrong — or right — at any point in the organizational framework. As stated earlier, it also requires you to ensure your employees are happy with what is happening in the organization. Employee engagement and passion both predict long-term performance. There are some indicators as to whether your employees are engaged, including low turnover, high morale, and high trust in leadership. When these indicators are strong, you’re probably on the right path to great organizational leadership.

Leading in the Alliance Context

Leadership in the alliance context refers to forging, nurturing, and managing collaborative relationships to expand and leverage your organization’s assets.

There are two different types of alliances leaders may face: internal and external. Internal alliances are formed between departments within your organization, whereas external alliances are formed between your organization and other corporate entities. Whichever type you’re tasked with leading, the alliance was likely formed with the purpose of achieving a common goal.

Developing and maintaining alliances makes an organization run smoothly. For example, if you don’t have a good relationship with the company that ships your products, your customers are going to be unhappy. Leading an alliance and owning your leadership in an alliance can make all the difference.

Alliances can fail for many reasons, the three most common being:

  1. Unclear strategic purpose
  2. Failure to ensure compatibility
  3. The alliance charter was not explicitly defined

To ensure you don’t face any of these problems, it helps to know the challenges you’ll face as an alliance leader. Accountability can be a big problem in alliances, especially external ones. Holding yourself and the person at the other end accountable will keep the alliance strong.

Competently leading in all five contexts of leadership is no easy feat, and it’s one that many leaders struggle to achieve throughout their careers. However, once you understand what your leadership style is on a daily basis and how it must change in each context, mastering them all gets a lot easier.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Inspire Software blog.

Dr. Drea Zigarmi is a strategic advisor to Inspire Software.

By Drea Zigarmi