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.

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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.


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