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New Constructs for Effective Leadership – Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series on effective leadership through additional constructs. The first construct discussed was emotional intelligence. Today we discuss contextual intelligence.  The final construct (posted at a later date) is strategic intelligence.

Basic assumptions of how to lead and what leadership entails are being challenged more than ever before. It has always been difficult to define leadership succinctly.  As the context of leadership expands and becomes complex that difficulty is increasing.  Traditional models and theories of leadership suffer because they focus solely on the leader, the follower or the context.  Consequently, few models or theories adequately address the complexity and uncertainty of today’s leadership landscape.  They do not account for the volatile and dynamic contexts that are created by the interactions between the leader, the follower and the outcomes of their interactions and decisions.

Contextual intelligence integrates the principles of tacit knowledge, synchronicity and time orientation that offer the practitioner outcomes that can immediately impact performance. Outcomes associated with the practice of contextual intelligence include:

  • Explaining why there might be success in one environment and failure in another
  • Reducing conflict and increasing awareness of the values and ideas of self and others
  • Increased ability to effectively influence others
  • Responding to and profiting from unexpected or complicated change
  • Increasing team buy-in
  • Accelerating the ability to contribute in a new context
  • Appreciating external and internal influences

In the static work environment there are stable and predictable outcomes that follow standard patterns. These could be equated to the law of gravity.  Only looking at the business landscape as a linear process can blind a leader from unanticipated formative events that do occur.  Contextual intelligence allows one to assess how well they are performing in relation to the environmental context and modify their behavior based on that assessment.  This is basically the definition of situational awareness.  Consider engaging in the process of diagnosing contextual variables to address or fix the core or root issue as opposed to merely bandaging the symptoms. This is the fundamental concept to contextual intelligence.

The business environment is actually two different environments that interact and influence each other. First is the organization itself.  This is a complicated system.  It is a closed system and can be described in reference to the number of parts it has internally and can be understood by breaking it down to the smallest component and analyzing those parts.  The job market is a complex system.  It is an open system and requires understanding all the parts relative to the context including external influences.  A complex system cannot be understood by only studying the smallest part of the system; it requires both internal and external analysis as a whole.

Complex systems are highly susceptible to change. One small change can cause a chain reaction of unpredictable and nonlinear change.  Since the two systems are related, changes in the job market affect and can change the organization.  That change includes how one deals with and understands the past, anticipates the future and places a higher priority on the present.  It also has a profound impact on who can be a leader, how leadership is measured and where it takes place.

The actions of a skillful leader are largely based on tacit knowledge.   This is commonly referred to as intuition or wisdom.  It comes from two sources: experience and analogical reasoning.  In its simplest form the most plentiful source of tacit knowledge is from trial-and-error experiences.  Tacit knowledge is certainly required to lead an organization, but it is not enough.  In an ambiguous environment it is necessary for one to view themselves relative to their relationships.  Understanding how one relates to others within rapidly changing contexts is necessary to transition effectively as a leader or influencers in contexts that are uncertain and complex.


Contextual intelligence is probably best described as “3D” thinking. It requires an intuitive grasp of relevant past events, acute awareness of current contextual variables and awareness of the preferred future and the ability to seamlessly move between the contexts.  As with emotional intelligence strategic intelligence can be honed throughout life.  It is a necessary aspect for effective leadership in today’s ever-changing work environment.

Read part 1 of this series on Emotional Intelligence here.

Stay tuned for part 3 and the discussion on Strategic Intelligence.

Jim Turner – Director of Business Relations (North America)

Gould Design, Inc.