Some managerial knowledge is universal, and some is specific to a context, a market or a culture. When I teach my students about leadership and management, they learn soon that the answer to almost all questions on the topic is “it depends on”. A good leader must read the context and circumstances before making decisions. This skill is called contextual intelligence: the ability to understand how far goes our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to the environment. It’s an exercise of diagnosis and application.
No matter how much you know about universal managerial practices. Trying to apply them without considering culture, context or specific circumstances is a recipe for failure.
What is context, then? Context is all the external and internal factors, and interpersonal relationships that contribute to the uniqueness of a specific situation or event. In short, how many times, you’ve found yourself saying “If I were you…” but you aren’t. And this makes the whole thing different.
Context should be approached with the intention to extract knowledge from it. I’m not talking about a big series of data or facts. Diagnosing context means connecting the dots, in Steve Jobs’ words; leaders need their intuition to do that. Intuition is an important part of contextual intelligence: it’s the last application of experience.
I’ve talked about the Cynafin framework before. And here I go again. When people are immersed in complex environments, and they must lead in the unknown, unable to relate causes with effects, intuition can give them answers. This said, I must highlight that although unable to establish a relationship between events, people should collect their facts about the context to help the process.
Therefore, diagnosing context has more to do with experiencing and interpreting events than with IQ or formal education. The thing is that experience is quite individual and can’t be transformed into a general learning model. What we actually can do with experience is giving it a meaning, learn from it and feed our intuition for the next time.
Some leaders thrive and flourish in a context but when promoted or changed into another context, they struggle. The same is true for companies. The ability to understand how context impacts the events and how they must tune their response is key.
Developing this contextual intelligence requires a learning mindset, the acknowledgement that our abilities and knowledge aren’t fixed, and we can learn. The capacity of taking changes as an opportunity to learn, avoiding that what we know could eventually limit what we could learn. Therefore, a learning mindset requires, somehow, we look at changes with a beginner’s curiosity, without taking things for granted.
As said before, contextual intelligence is about diagnosis and application. We need an idea of what is our preferred outcome in the light of the information about the context, our experience and our intuition to make the right decisions.
All in all, good leaders can assess the situation correctly and adapt their leadership skills to produce the expected results. To achieve that, they must work on developing their contextual intelligence.