Leadership Development for Today’s Changing World

The old ways of leading with formal authority and perceived expertise no longer instill in followers deference, trust, and loyalty. Leadership, in today’s world of unprecedented change, requires the effective use of a set of skills to: 1) collect and use broad intelligence for decision-making, 2) understand and use organizational context elements as drivers for behavior, and 3) be aware of and manage communication differences, opportunities, and pitfalls. This is “contextual leadership,” and effective leaders are masters of it. Contextual leadership is the influential driver of intentional organizational change that begins and ends with changing the thinking, feelings and behavior of the organization’s people.

The following is an example of effective contextual leadership. 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 for the people in the firm, which is actually an incredibly effective driver of intentional change. They also  made mistakes, which is how human beings learn, and can be part of an effective strategy design and implementation process. They led by aiming change at the elements of the context within their control—the array of structures and processes that fell within their talent cycle—and it worked. Contextual leadership, unlike leadership with formal authority, embraces a willingness to make mistakes, cause others discomfort, and seek out opportunities to affect the thinking, feelings and behavior of the people involved.

The Old Ways of Leading Do Not Work

The old ways of leading aren’t working because our world is being shaped outside of linear cause and effect. People who are driven by curiosity are creating new and innovative approaches by thinking in a non-linear fashion. This has displaced the power of formal authority and expertise, and created a “VUCA” world. VUCA is an acronym standing for: Volatile change; Uncertainty about how the future will unfold; Complex forces exerting their influence on challenges and solutions; and Ambiguity in the meaning of everything. VUCA makes it difficult to understand what is happening and what to do about it.

One example of how complexity makes decision-making difficult is the process of unconscious bias, and how it exerts its influence on challenges and solutions. Everyone is affected by unconscious bias. Among other ways, it manifests like this: we like people who we think are like us, and we think people are like us who look, talk and act in ways that are familiar to us. We think people will be effective in a role if we like them and they appear to exhibit familiar qualities. This dynamic is ever-present and superimposed over any “objective” criteria we decide to use in make an evaluative decision. It affects how we interpret the presence or absence of “objective” criteria. This is why evaluations including feedback are as much, if not more, about the giver than about the subject. Andreas Ekström, author and journalist, suggests that it is a philosophical impossibility to ever get an unbiased search result from any search engine, because behind every algorithm is a set of personal beliefs that no code can ever completely eradicate. Do you see the complexity and pervasiveness of this factor that affects decision-making?

Unconscious bias is one reason why today’s successful change initiatives are built on collaboration. Since each of us sees only a tiny sliver of all possible data, interpret that data in our unique and biased way, and can do only what we alone can do, successful change efforts depend on collaboration among people with different perspectives on what is going on and what to do about it. Collaboration also reduces resistance to change, helps the people affected by change learn new skills, and exposes them to the discomfort of the present and vision for the future that drive a change effort forward.

Broad collaboration creates inclusion and proactively reduces resistance to change, a common part of any change process, by developing engagement and buy-in and reducing surprise with its consequential efforts to block change. Every change process requires people to learn new skills, only learned through application and practice. Inclusion in the change process is an opportunity to apply and practice these new skills, whether the changes aim to increase business, integrate new technology or introduce new process management into your organization. Finally, when workable solutions emerge, they are driven by a strong discomfort with the present, and a desire for something different and better by the people you are asking to make changes. If they are kept on the periphery of the change effort, they will never develop the feelings that drive a person to adopt new thinking and new behaviors.

Broad collaboration and inclusion is especially important for lawyers. Changing the way lawyers think, feel and behave is difficult, because lawyers are trained to create certainty, not tolerate or learn from uncertainty and ambiguity. Also, most lawyers prefer balance, and not the disruption that precedes, launches and drives the arc of change in a VUCA world. Lawyers also generally prefer to work independently and not as part of a collaborative team. Keep in mind that a lawyer’s training and personal preferences are not due to an intractable personality flaw. Lawyers, like most every other person on this planet, can learn new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. It’s the responsibility of today’s leaders to make that happen by changing the organizational context – the structures and processes, including culture. Leading theorists have attributed the high failure rate of change initiatives (approximately 70 percent failure rate) to the leadership failure to address cultural barriers.

What is the Organizational Context?

Any organization’s context is its: 1) structures, the visible and invisible ways people are organized and grouped together for the work of the organization; 2) processes, the formal and informal ways that the work of the organization gets done; 3) people; and 4) resources. Visible structures are buildings, office space, and the formal groups and hierarchies defined by the organization. Invisible structures are the informal networks of friendships that form as a result of seeking advice or information. Invisible structures can be made visible through the use of social network mapping software, which can help identify the highly influential advisors or conduits of information. These people can be enlisted as helpers or identified as blockers of change efforts. Formal processes leave a document trail, like the myriad processes that fall under the entire talent cycle from hiring to firing and everything in between. Informal processes do not.

Some processes have a formal and an informal aspect, like project management, work-flow, and communication. Culture is an informal and hidden process, which affects what people think they should do to solve problems, gain rewards or resources, and avoid punishment or harm. Organizational politics and brand are part of the culture. Contextual leaders understand how the various elements of context interact and are able to figure out which part of the organization’s context to modify to cause desired changes in the way people think, feel, and behave.

Contextual Leadership Skills

Although we may think that leadership is the exercise of formal authority to direct others through clear communication, it’s much more. That particular skill is necessary for managing others; however, it is not sufficient to successfully face today’s leadership challenges. The array of skills, including those related to communication and influence, are developed through experiential training and action learning. Here are the top three areas for leadership development, the associated skills, and how to develop them in your leaders.

1. Collect and use broad intelligence for decision-making.

            Leaders need to be able to collect broad intelligence and use it to make important decisions about a VUCA world. The volatility of changes makes it easy to miss important signs without multiple viewpoints. The uncertainty about how the future will unfold requires multiple worldviews brainstorming possibilities. The ambiguity in the meaning of what’s going on and the options to respond require group collaboration without groupthink. To execute their responsibilities, leaders need to be able to develop and manage diverse teams, make sense of complex and sometimes contradictory information, and make good and timely decisions that create new and better ways for the organization to be successful. All of these skills can be assessed and developed with practice, and include the following:

  • Instilling trust with confidence, courage and authenticity
  • Attracting, selecting and developing top talent
  • Valuing differences to build teams with diverse perspectives and skills
  • Building partnerships with others to meet shared objectives
  • Managing conflict effectively with an array of optional responses
  • Holding self and others accountable
  • Managing others through clear direction and delegation
  • Securing and deploying necessary resources.

2. Understand and use organizational contextual elements as drivers for behavior.

Contextual leadership is adjusting organizational elements to drive the behaviors needed from the people affected by a change initiative. Each element offers a different opportunity to affect the way people in your organization think, feel, and behave. Elements include the structures and processes mentioned above, the brand and resources. Resources are people, time, space, money and technology.


Brands are “transitional objects” that differentiate us from each other and create a fit with people aligned with the brand message. Brands—at least good brands that do not start and end with a logo—convey the beliefs and culture of the organization to the world and the people of the organization. Brands satisfy needs, create meaning and momentum, and persuade along personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social dimensions. They are powerful generators of momentum, an important way to move a change initiative forward. A change initiative will progress through different stages. Contextual leadership examines, adjusts and otherwise uses the brand to help people manage the inevitable feelings of loss, confusion and fear that mark certain stages of change, and transform those feelings into more energizing emotions, like desire, to build the momentum needed for a successful change initiative.

Examining and talking about your organizational brand with the people affected by change can support new process management, business development, or the introduction and use of new technology. Brand is directly connected to culture, how people think about what is possible and which behavior is expected. Brand is a lever for culture change.

A brand includes a value proposition—what people find valuable and want from the organization. Some people are working with the organization as clients, while others are working in the organization as talent. A brand also includes market segment, the type of consumer who finds your organizational brand and value proposition very appealing. Neglecting to link brand to the changes desired is the equivalent of leaving a main ingredient out of the recipe for your favorite dessert.

Transformational organization change is a time to examine and possibly re-design your brand and value proposition with an eye toward the future. In 2007, I was working on my capstone project for my master’s degree. I was working with a law firm that had articulated a growth strategy developed in a report with a metaphorical tagline. Every partner in the firm liked and agreed with the pithy tagline but it was generic—being great lawyers, being the best.

The firm’s leadership couldn’t move the strategy forward in any direction because the metaphorical tag line wasn’t enough. In addition to being too general, it expressed what the organization had been and not what it could become or how it was different and better than its competition for its present and future market segment.

Structures and Processes

Structures and processes can block change efforts when they cause behavior that is contrary to what is needed to make a change effort successful. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been approached for advice about how to create a sales culture when the compensation processes and business development structures create a few insular silos and drive behaviors contrary to sharing wide exposure to clients and cross-selling.

Similarly, too often I am told that a law firm can’t retain the people they want, but is unwilling to change its structures and talent management processes to replace formal evaluation and traditional training with true mentoring, guided stretch assignments for action learning opportunities, and direct and timely feedback. If the structures discourage trust and the processes focus on evaluation instead of development, it’s impossible to create a culture that leads talented people to believe they are valued and can have a successful career in the firm.

Change efforts face resistance when leaders ignore the fact that context includes the organization’s stage of change. Consequently, leaders need to know how to recognize the current stage of organizational change and what to do to nudge a change initiative forward when it stalls. A good leader knows that change follows significant discomfort, and sometimes it falls upon the leader to create that discomfort.

I use a five-stage-change-model with my clients. It helps leaders to identify opportunities to address resistance based on the stage of the change initiative. The hardest part of any change initiative is to build the momentum that accompanies a shift from old to new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving to create personal and organizational success. Let’s focus on three of those stages: Disruptions, Ending, and Momentum and Movement.

The Disruption Stage is when people experience an unexpected or un-asked-for-change, and are not able to respond with pragmatic, productive intention. They express shock, surprise or confusion. If you are a leader, this is a good time to listen to concerns, solicit and respond to questions, reassure people that their jobs are safeif they are, and communicate clearly about what is happening. You also should create obvious discomfort, so that people know the current situation is worth leaving behind for something new and better.

The Ending is when strategic change generally begins. Some people may be blind to reality and unable or unwilling to do anything. Many people feel significant discomfort, maybe sadness, probably anxiety. Toward the end of the stage, they experience a strong desire to escape. As a leader, you should give them a reason to change by communicating what will be different and better for them individually and as part of the organization, and the plans to move forward.

There is a tension between the comfort of the familiar and the desire for something different and better. As the tension resolves in favor of doing something, we move into the Momentum and Movement stage. This is the time to evaluate whether your structures and processes are driving the behaviors you want, and not blocking them.

In the Momentum and Movement Stage, people are feeling more energized with a desire to do something. This is the time to introduce training programs. Too early and people aren’t ready; too late and they aren’t interested.


People are your most important resource in a change effort, because they will be the reason for its success or failure. Leaders often assume that people who are not leaders are followers. This is a grave error. Sometimes the de facto leaders of an organization have followers, people who will fall into line and respond with behaviors that are aligned with the wishes of leaders. More often than not, they have a variety of “others” in the organization, many of whom have their own strong agendas driving their thinking, emotions and behavior. Some “others” are followers, while other “others” are bystanders or obstructionists. Some of these people are easy to identify, while others are hidden within the organization and only become obvious using social networking mapping software to generate a visual display that identifies the highly influential and connected people. Today’s leaders must be able to identify the people who others trust and seek out for advice, and the people who have a lot of connections and can help spread the leader’s messages.

Some people are sought out for information about the organization. They seem to know about the financial stability of the firm, whether a massive firing or hiring is the future, or whether a merger or sale is being contemplated. They are sought after for their knowledge, while others are sought after for their advice. Leaders need to know how to identify these influencers and engage them. These influencers have the power to drive a change initiative forward, or block efforts by what they communicate, to whom, and how.

People also need resources to make changes to their thinking and behavior. The most overlooked resource is time. The most overused resource is traditional training. Make sure that your people have the resources they need to make the thinking and behavior changes you want.

All of these skills can be assessed and developed with practice and include the following:

  • Adapting an approach to match shifting demands
  • Facing difficult situations with experimentation, and rebounding from setbacks by learning from every situation
  • Actively seeking self-development opportunities
  • Process and project management for continuous improvement, efficiency and effectiveness
  • Able to translate future possibilities into strategies
  • Able to make timely and good decisions to keep the organization moving forward.

3. Be aware of and manage communication differences, opportunities and pitfalls.

Communication differences, sometimes called work-style differences, matter. Poor communication can derail a change effort, while a talented leader’s management of communication differences, opportunities and pitfalls can seem like the magic wand for success. Good communication takes into account who is communicating to whom, the form of communication and its content. Timing is everything, as is an appreciation for the needs, wants and expectations of the recipient of a leader’s communication.

Certainly, all leaders need to know how to create and communicate a vision for the changes they are seeking. They must be able to explain what will be different and better after the structural and process changes become the new normal, and the behavior changes asked of individuals become habit. An engaging vision can create desire, and feelings of desire can create movement and momentum. That said, leaders need to know when and how to communicate a vision, listen to concerns, ask questions, provide answers to questions, provide reassurance, and provide advice or training.

In addition to creating and communicating a vision, leadership communication skills include self-and-other-awareness of communication differences and styles, and being able to adjust a style and message to be most effective. Most people have a preference for the type of data they will notice, how they make decisions about what data mean, and how to decide what to do. Most people have preferred ways of approaching a challenge and a conflict. You can count on your change initiative being perceived as a challenge and creating multiple conflicts.

We have used experiential training to develop leadership communication skills. Workshops, action learning and coaching based on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) and archetypes for approaching challenges have all proven popular with lawyers. These training sessons often qualify for CLE credit, and allow leadership-learners to practice in an experiential workshop and create a strategic plan to develop this competency through action learning upon return to the office.

Communication is critical. It substitutes for formal authority and expertise. Contextual leaders do not expect deference to expertise or formal authority, because the power formerly associated with such roles, has changed. Today, an expert is 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. People will listen and follow the directions of an expert, because they assume the “expert” is trustworthy and knows something they do not. Expertise, based on the ability to collect data, analyze it in a linear, logical way, and use it in a rote or rule-based manner, is narrowing because it’s easier, cheaper and faster for technology and/or a large group of people to do the same thing. That type of expertise is not as empowering as it once was.

Formal authority also doesn’t command the trust it once did because of a cultural shift in the deference given it. Examples are seen in decreased formality in how people address one another regardless of age, hierarchical role or professional status. Starker examples are seen in the diminished sense of organizational loyalty, and the shrinking scope of the “taking-care-of-others” attitude demonstrated by highly publicized business closings and massive job lay-offs.

It’s never easy to change the comfortable and familiar ways in which people have learned over time to communicate. Consider the development phase of the talent cycle as an example. Many seasoned lawyers shy away from giving direct face-to-face feedback to less-experienced lawyers about what they are doing wrong, and the workplace behaviors and work products that are acceptable. Instead of mentoring, a lawyer may choose to provide written feedback on a brief that makes the brief look like it returned from a bloody battle with life-threatening injuries. On the flip side, instead of thinking of the written feedback on the brief as a gift and clear indication of what the seasoned lawyer wants to see, the less-experienced lawyer may interpret it as unfair and unhelpful criticism, and evidence of not being valued and being unable to succeed in the organization. Part of this is due to a limited repertoire of the two-way-street of communication skills, while another part is due to a culture that perpetuates a failure to learn from mistakes, a huge obstacle to human progress. As Matthews Syed explains in his new book, Black Box Thinking, a “progressive attitude toward failure” is the “cornerstone of success in any institution.”

Gravitating toward the familiar is common and shows up in the data we notice and how we make sense of it. For example, lawyers learn the art of targeted noticing. They begin with a position and notice the data that can support or undermine their position. A vast amount of data goes unnoticed. In today’s VUCA world, this is a problem.

We need leaders who have the skills to notice as much as possible and make sense of the data in multiple ways, because we do not yet know what is and is not important. Invariably, doing so requires collaboration among people with diverse perspectives, and leaders who are adept at developing and managing this level of organizational diversity. Superimpose on this the need for leaders to influence the behavior of people who resist formal authority, evaluate expertise with a critical eye, and are slow to trust, and the need for a particular type of leadership development becomes clear. All of these skills can be assessed and developed with practice, and include the following:

  • Demonstrating self-awareness
  • Instilling trust with confidence, courage and authenticity
  • Managing conflict effectively with an array of optional responses
  • Managing others through clear direction and delegation
  • Effective communication
  • Driving engagement
  • Driving vision
  • Organizational savvy

I have found the Korn Ferry Leadership Architect and Voice 360° tools to be particularly useful for organizational culture, individual assessment, and organizational planning for change and leadership development.

We need leaders who are skilled at contextual leadership to lead today’s law firms, law schools and law departments. The good news is that we can develop them.

 About the Author

Susan Letterman White is an attorney and an organization development/change management consultant in Boston, Massachusetts, with 25+ years of experience working in the legal sector, consulting sector, government, and higher education. Follow her @susanletterman.

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