Contextual leadership is all that matters

Issue December 2015 By Susan Letterman White

Contextual leadership is all that matters for today's law firm, law school or law department leaders. Today's successful leaders spend less time trying to influence others in their organizations directly and more time adjusting the elements of the context under the leader's control. The chief talent partner and chief talent officer in a global firm experimented with different ways of structuring talent management processes until they found the options that worked best for their firm. They caused a lot of discomfort, which is actually an incredibly valuable driver of intentional change, and made mistakes, which are part of an effective strategy design and implementation process. They led by aiming change at the elements of the context within their control, and it worked. Now, I'm going to tell you why it worked.

What it means to be a leader in any profession has changed and continues to change because of changes in our world, such as technology, the economy and culture. In particular the meaning of expertise and authority have changed. Expertise, presently, has a de facto meaning of someone with a skill in high demand and low supply in the marketplace. Expertise allows one to price one's services without sensitivity to the effects of the downward pricing pressures of commoditization. It also supplements the power of formal authority to lead others. Others listen and follow because others assume that the expert knows something they do not and, by virtue of that knowledge, is also trustworthy. The scope of true expertise in the marketplace, based purely on the ability to collect data, analyze it in a linear, logical way, use it in a rote or rule-based manner is narrowing because it's quickly becoming easier and cheaper to do the same by connecting to other people or web-based platforms. Thus, it's simply not as valuable or powerful as it was.

Leadership, in the sense of formal authority, also isn't the power it used to be. The shift in leadership from formal authority to contextual leadership is a consequence of the historical, cultural shift in systemic power dynamics. This shift in power dynamics is evident by decreased formality (use of first name) in how people address one another regardless of age, hierarchical role or professional status. Trust, based on any of these factors, has diminished because of the growing gap between the empowered haves and have-nots, the blurring of formal boundaries sent into motion by the 1960s in the United States (according to Barbara Kellerman in Hard Times), and the shrinking scope of the "taking-care-of-others" attitude demonstrated by highly publicized organization closings and massive job layoffs.

As a consequence of theses changes in the meaning of expert and formal authority, to be a successful leader, such as the managing partner, general counsel or CEO, lawyers must become much more intentional and self-aware in leading themselves and others by understanding and using the entire systemic context. Systemic context means the organization in which the leader works and its people, processes and structures, and the organization's external context, which is everything outside of the organization. Structures are how people are connected and organized or coordinated within a system. Processes are how people execute tasks within the system. Some structures are clearly evident and more formalized, like office buildings, departments or divisions, projects, retreats, and group trainings while others are informal like the network of friendships. Some structures are more permanent, while others last only for a short period. Some processes are obvious like the array of talent cycle processes, while others are equally important, but less obvious, like culture.

World and organizational history affect the organization's culture. Culture affects the way people in the organization think and behave as strongly as any of the formal structures and processes. A successful leader in any organization in today's legal industry is aware of every force exerting influence on the behaviors of the people in the leader's organization and adjusts the contextual factors to achieve his or her intended goals. That's how today's successful leaders lead, by aiming adjustments at the unique contextual factors affecting the people in their organization.