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Contextual Intelligence: a Specific Form of Organizational Wisdom

Executive summary: "A business leader's ability to make sense of his or her contextual framework and harness its power often made the difference between success and failure."(by Sean Silverthorne, Editor, HBS Working Knowledge: HBSWK Pub. Date: Apr 12, 2004). "A leader follows many paths while on the road to success"says Mike Henning (in "Hotel and Motel Management"May 16, 2005. Available at

Success Revisited

Success is the sum total of achievements gained from a variety of contexts. For context read "situation", "circumstances"or "event". The "successful"person is the one who "reads"a situation and responds effectively/appropriately to most, if not all, the situations that arise. The ability to shift mental "gears"in ways that decodes each event/context is a critical factor in the design of success, and is called "contextual intelligence"by these authors. Without recognizing the importance of contextual intelligence, it is easy to be seduced by a "perfect person"or "the formula"-approach

Contextual Intelligence

Contextual Intelligence is a particular form of organizational wisdom. It is the wisdom that demonstrates itself in the person’s ability to "decode"i.e. understand the priorities and viable actions, of a particular business event. This understanding leads to actions that produce results which is good, both for the context in which they occur, but also as they contribute to the overall intended outcome.

From modeling leaders and managers about their successes, it is clear that their end-result has been achieved by gaining "wins"in most, if not all, events that they had to face in the course of achieving the big success (see also for example John Kotter’s excellent study "What leaders Really Do"Harvard Business Review, 1999; and Sean Silverthorne, Editor, HBS Working Knowledge: HBSWK Pub. Date: Apr 12, 2004, interviewing Tony Mayo on "What Great American Leaders Teach Us"). Each context/event had been its own challenge requiring its own thinking-action-results sequence. (For more on the thinking-action-results model see These contextual challenges range from issues that involve immediate, short or longer time-span; minimum-incomplete to vast amounts of complex information; particular once-off events to patterns that has to be redesigned or stopped; difference in the scope of the implications for winning or losing; etc.

Each contextual challenge requires a particular form and content of thinking strategy. In other words: context can be said to shape the internal sequence of events that is called "ability"or "competence."For example: decisions taken during an emergency with safety issues at stake, will be different from decisions to approve an emergency out-of-budget item, and different from utilizing market intelligence to immediately reconsider some corporate action. Not only are the content of the contexts different, but so are the required possibility-thinking and planning of priorities different to gain a "win". (or: The thinking method, the kind of content, the scope of content, the time-horizon of the effect that the leader has to deal with, will be significantly different in each of the above examples.)

On an experiential level coaches and researchers know this about context, and even use the words ‘context"in describing the research results, but, it is not taken seriously enough when it comes to dealing with the fact of the range of skills required to be successful.

Perfect People

The findings that support this thinking are therefore a serious question to the "perfect person-"or the "only success formula-"thinking prevalent in the leadership literature. Case studies or books about personal experiences which neglect to point out the contextual challenges and "wins"are guilty of oversimplifying what success is about. One recent example is the "4 Traits of a Great Leader"by Ty Warren (in Credit Union Magazine, February 2006, available at he implies that if you do the following four things (only) you will be a great leader: "great leaders muster courage, share vision, possess a sense of reality and lead through their values."On one level it is impossible to do otherwise-this is what happens when any person makes a decision. The question is about the content of each of these very abstract concepts. It is not about having values, but whether the values are conducive to organizational success, as opposed to some secondary gain contrary to success (for example where "being nice"is more important than "being successful and courageous in decision making"). It is not about having a "sense of reality"it is about the "courage to confront that reality."(Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in "Confronting Reality"; London, Random House Business Books, 2004.)

Success is a fruit salad

Strengths cannot be defined as a single thinking-strategy, one sequence of steps. Even "courage"must be defined as a cluster of strengths (see the article in Management Today of ….by Armand Kruger.) In the same way it might be the bold but effective way to think of success as a system or cluster of strengths that calls for contextual variations.

Organizational wisdom as a fruit salad would then refer to the range and mix of thinking skills required by the different contexts. As it were, different "intelligences"necessary for creating gains in the contextual variations a leader has to face. No wonder the personality type and attribute approaches to describing leadership are falling in disfavor: they are simply too simple.