The Importance of Being Expert… Contextually Expert

Close Up of Highlighting Specific Word Leadership in a Dictionary

By Barbara Kellerman

The article argues that leadership is not a person – it is a system. It is a system in which three parts are of equal importance: leaders, followers (or others), and contexts. The article focuses on the importance of incorporating contextual awareness and contextual expertise into programs presuming leadership development.


Leadership education, training, and development are, generally, relentlessly, excessively leader-centric. They fixate on growing the individual at the expense of others who pertain – particularly followers – and at the expense of knowing the contexts within which leaders and followers necessarily are located. Most leadership pedagogies are, in other words, solipsistic rather than holistic.

Leadership, though, is not a person. It is a system. It is a system that consists of three parts, each of which is equally important, and each of which impinges equally on the other two. The first is leaders. Leaders matter, obviously, and they are important. They are not, however, all-important. They are no more important than everyone and everything else. Which brings us to the second part of the leadership system, followers. That is, all those others – “stakeholders”, if you prefer, or perhaps “constituents”, or however is named the other – who leaders must bring along if they are to lead, to maintain stability and, or, to create change. The third part of the leadership system is the context or, better, contexts (plural) within which leaders and followers are situated. Think of these as concentric circles. The inner circles are proximate contexts, such as team and town and other familiar terrains. The outer circles are less familiar, they are distant contexts, such as country and culture, organisation and industry.

Some leadership experts recognise that followers are important. Other leadership experts recognise that contexts are important. A few even concede that both are important. Still, with nearly no exceptions, followers and contexts remain at the margins of the leadership industry. Occasionally they are thought of as being interesting in theory, but only rarely are they thought of as being important to practice. Which explains why we persist in our mistaken perception – that leadership is a person instead of a system.

Leadership industry is my catch-all term for the now countless leadership centres, institutes, programs, courses, seminars, workshops, experience, trainers, books, blogs, articles, websites, webinars, videos, conferences, consultants, and coaches claiming to teach people – usually for money, sometimes for big money – how to lead.1 Some in the leadership industry claim to educate people how to lead. Others in the leadership industry claim to train people how to lead. Still others in the leadership industry claim to develop leaders. Though these verbs differ one from the other, the content of what the many thousands of different leadership programs consist of is actually far more similar than it is different. The intention is to teach people how to lead. The obsession is with the leader. And the exclusion is the two other variables that equally pertain. Leadership programs and pedagogies nearly never address the importance of being a follower – or the importance of being contextually clever.

[ms-protect-content id=”9932″] 

For some years I have been exploring this unfortunate imbalance.2 Followers, I have argued, ordinary people if you will, have always been important. But given that in recent decades they have become more ideologically entitled and technologically empowered, they are more important, more challenging, than ever before. Contexts, I have similarly argued, have always been important. But given that in recent decades they have become more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA is the acronym), they too are more important, more challenging, than ever before. To take just one screamingly obvious example: technology. The impact of social media on patterns of dominance and deference, on relations between leaders and followers, is incalculable. Which is precisely why leaders who ignore technology as a component of context do so at their peril.

To take just one screamingly obvious example: technology. The impact of social media on patterns of dominance and deference, on relations between leaders and followers, is incalculable. Which is precisely why leaders who ignore technology as a component of context do so at their peril.

This article makes two pertinent points: one general, one specific. My general point is that leadership learning should be broadly based rather than narrowly focused. That leadership learning should focus on followers as well as leaders – and on contexts as well as leaders and followers. My specific point pertains to context. It is to argue that all leadership learners should become contextually aware, and develop at least some level of contextual expertise.

To the degree that the leadership industry refers to context at all, it is to “contextual intelligence”. Though variously defined, being contextually intelligent suggests three separate and distinct capacities. The first is to be contextually aware. The second is to be contextually expert. And the third is to act accordingly – to act in keeping with being contextually aware and contextually expert. Harvard Kennedy School Professor Joseph Nye describes contextual intelligence as an “intuitive diagnostic skill that helps a leader to align tactics with objectives to create smart strategies in varying situations”.3 Harvard Business School Professor Tarun Khanna describes contextual intelligence as “the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to an environment different from the one in which it was developed”.4 Both Nye and Khanna suggest a connection between the capacity to know, and the arguably “intuitive” capacity to act adaptively and strategically on what is known. Which raises the question of whether intuition or even understanding can be learned by leaders? Can be taught to leaders? Or are some of us innately intuitive and understanding while others are not?

Because the answers to these questions are, at best, uncertain, in my own work on context I stick to the first two of the three contextual capacities: raising contextual awareness and becoming contextually expert. This implies of course that some information about contexts is of consequence – that some information about context is important for leaders to have and that it behooves them, therefore, to acquire it. Here is what I wrote in my recent book, Hard Times: Leadership in America, which was all about the context that constitutes the United States in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. “I use the term contextual expertise – as opposed to contextual intelligence – to distinguish what I provide in the book from what has come before. My focus is not on how well leaders are able to address whatever it is the situation requires. My focus is on what they need to know first, on what they need to know before they even begin to act.”5 My interest was not, in other words, in getting leaders to develop a certain trait, or to gain a particular skill. Rather it was in raising their awareness of the importance of context, and then getting them to acquire a particular body of pertinent knowledge.

I am not the first to point to the importance of context. Michael Porter, for example, developed a well-known framework consisting of five “forces”, which together facilitated analysis and assessment of competition within a given industry. (Porter also distinguished between different contexts, specifically between what he called the micro environment and macro environment.) Each of these five forces is, no coincidence, a component of context: 1) threat of new entrants; 2) threat of substitutes; 3) bargaining power of buyers; 4) bargaining power of suppliers; and 5) nature and level of industry rivalry. Still, notwithstanding work as widely and well regarded as Porter’s, the concept of context(s) as being of consequence to all leaders all the time has never become entrenched. So far as the Leadership Industry generally is concerned, it remains marginal.

To cover the country – in this instance the country that is the United States of America at this moment in time – for the purposes of writing Hard Times I developed a checklist. A checklist of what you need to know about America if you want to lead in America – or, more precisely, if you want to lead reasonably well. I did not claim that leaders need to know everything about, for instance, the law. Rather I claimed that leaders in twenty-first century America – political leaders, corporate leaders, nonprofit leaders, educational leaders, religious leaders, all leaders – are situated in a litigious, and also regulatory context that will have an impact on how they lead and manage. In other words, to be a leader in twenty-first century America without having even a clue about the litigiousness that has become endemic, is to be disadvantaged.

The checklist in the book is not action-oriented – at least not directly. Instead it is intended to convey an idea – that contexts matter. And it is intended to convey information – information to inform practice. The checklist is also, I should add, fungible. It can be tailored by anyone anywhere to suit whatever the distant context, the macro environment. For the items themselves – say, history and ideology, media and money, class and culture – are transferable and transportable. They are as applicable to the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, as to the United States.

The checklist in Hard Times lists twenty-four different items: 1) History; 2) Ideology; 3) Religion; 4) Politics; 5) Economics: 6) Institutions; 7) Organisations; 8) Law; 9) Business; 10) Technology; 11) Media; 12) Money; 13) Innovation; 14) Competition; 15) Class; 16) culture; 17) Divisions; 18) Interests; 19) Environment; 20) Risks; 21) Trends; 22) Leaders; 23) Followers; 24) Outsiders. The underlying thesis of the book is as indicated in the title: that leadership in America has become so difficult to exercise not because leaders in America have become hopelessly inept or corrupt. But because followers have changed. And so, as I seek here to make clear, has the context. The context has changed in ways that make leadership more difficult to exercise in the present than it was in the past. Several examples:

Institutions – Americans’ overarching confidence in their institutions has declined dramatically in recent decades, and continues to do so even now. The numbers are relentlessly grim, the long-term trend being uninterruptedly down, down, down, with new lows recorded only recently for Americans’ level of confidence in public schools, churches, banks, and television news.

Organisations – Organisational hierarchies are less pyramidal now than they used to be. As a result, while leaders of organisations and institutions have by no means been eliminated, they have been diminished. Twenty-first century leaders generally have less power, authority, and influence than did twentieth century leaders. In fact, at least some devolution of power and authority has come to be considered best practice – as exemplified by the already well-worn term, “flattened hierarchy”.

Money – Money permeates every nook and cranny of life in twenty-first century America, to a degree that historically is unprecedented. Not just business and politics, obviously, even education and sports and the arts. For example, the market for art is sky high, way higher than ever before, with paintings by artists you’ve never heard of selling for millions, and paintings by artists you have heard of selling for mega millions. It is insidious – if only because the widespread inequity that results from this injection of money undermines fundamental assumptions of American capitalism.

Divisions – The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that theirs is a country deeply divided: ideologically, demographically, economically, regionally and religiously – and divided as well on many of the most important issues of the day. The sense that the nation is fractured is pervasive, contributing to leaders feeling hapless and followers frustrated. It’s a problem not just for political leaders but for corporate leaders, educational leaders, military leaders, religious leaders, and leaders in the various professions – all having to grapple with leading in a nation increasingly more heterogeneous than homogeneous.

Environment – Climate change as we know by now is a fiendishly complex issue, and controlling climate change is difficult beyond imagining. It’s a hydra-headed monster, theoretically involving every person and place on the planet, and phenomena that include but are not limited to greenhouse gasses, severe weather, land conversion, water availability, water and air pollution, biodiversity, exposure to chemicals and managing waste. While no leader – or for that matter follower – ought to be exempt from involvement, it has become clear in the last decade or two that intellectual ignorance and political resistance make progress on climate change dangerously difficult to accomplish.6

My argument then is not that leaders do not matter. Rather it is that historical causation is more complicated than our fixation on individual leaders would seem to suggest. Leadership is not a person – it is a system. It is a system in which people other than the leader impact on what happens and how. It is a system in which contexts equally impact on what happens and how.

Leadership is not a person – it is a system. It is a system in which people other than the leader impact on what happens and how. It is a system in which contexts equally impact on what happens and how.

Similarly, my claim is not that intuition and understanding are unimportant. Rather it is that contextual awareness and expertise are more realistically and readily developed. Isaiah Berlin wrote that to be a good doctor it is necessary but not sufficient to know anatomy. Experience and aptitude are also required. This said, neither experience nor aptitude “can ever be a complete substitute for knowledge of a developed science… say anatomy”.7 So it is with leadership. Neither intuition and understanding, or for that matter experience or aptitude, “can ever be a complete substitute” for knowing. For being contextually conscious and contextually clever.  



About the Author

kellerman-webBarbara Kellerman is James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is author of many books and articles on leadership and followership, including most recently The End of Leadership and Hard Times: Leadership in America. In 2016 Kellerman was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Leadership Association.


1. I discuss the Leadership Industry at some length in The End of Leadership (HarperCollins, 2012).
2. On followers, see Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2008). And on context, see Hard Times: Leadership in America (Stanford University Press, 2014).
3. The Power to Lead (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 87. The term contextual intelligence has also been used by several faculty at the Harvard Business School, including Tarun Khanna, Tony Mayo, and Nitin Nohria.
4. “Contextual Intelligence” in Harvard Business Review, September 2014.
5. Hard Times, p. 4.
6. The sources are in Hard Times. See particularly pp. 75, 90,153, 200, and 224.
7. The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History (Chatto & Windus, 1996), p. 41.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here