Leadership, Power and Contextual Intelligence

By Joseph S. Nye

Understanding of leadership is often limited by stereotypes about power, role and gender. In an information age where networks become more important, the soft power of attraction and persuasion becomes as important as the hard power of coercion and payment. Similarly, cooption becomes as important as command. And gender stereotypes not only limit the recruitment of talent but also the understanding of leadership roles. Such roles vary with context, and developing contextual intelligence is a priority for effective leadership.

The enormous potential of human leadership ranges from Attila the Hun to Mother Teresa, yet we often succumb to simple stereotypes about leadership and power. Most everyday leaders remain unheralded. The role of heroic leadership in war leads us to overemphasize command and control and hard military power. The image of the dominant male warrior leader lingers in modern times. Yet power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes one wants, and that can be accomplished by the soft power of attraction and persuasion as well as the hard power of coercion and payment.

Smart generals today know how to lead with more than just the use of force. Soldiers sometimes joke that their job description is simple: “kill people and break things.” As the U.S. rediscovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, hearts and minds also matter, and smart warriors need the soft power of attraction as well as the hard power of coercion. Indeed, an oversimplified image of warrior-style leadership in President George W. Bush’s first term caused costly setbacks for America’s role in the world. It is not a manly modern Achilles or the strongest alpha male who makes the best warrior leader in today’s communication age. Military leadership today also requires political and managerial skills.

Many autocratic rulers – in Zimbabwe or Belarus, among others — still lead in the old fashion today. Many leaders combine fear with corruption to maintain kleptocracies dominated by “the big man” and his coterie. A good portion of the two hundred countries in the world is ruled that way. Some theorists have tried to explain this with an “alpha male theory of leadership.” The psychiatrist Arnold M. Ludwig, for example, argues that just as male monkeys, chimps, or apes automatically begin to assume more responsibility for their particular community once they attain the dominant status of alpha male, human rulers begin to do so as well. Such socio-
biological explanations of leadership are of only limited
value. Thus far, no leadership gene has been identified, and studies of identical and fraternal male twins find that only a third of their difference in occupying formal leadership roles can be accounted for by genetic factors. While this suggests that inbred characteristics influence the extent to which people play particular roles, it leaves lots of room for people to learn behavior that influences outcomes.

Modern leadership is less about who you are, or how you were born than about what you have learned and what you do as part of a group. Nature and nurture intertwine, but nurture is much more important in the modern world than the heroic paradigm gives it credit for.

One effect of the traditional heroic warrior approach to leadership has been to support the belief that leaders are born rather than made, and that nature is more important than nurture. The search for the essential traits of a leader dominated the field of leadership studies until the late 1940s, and remains popular in common discourse today. A tall handsome person enters a room, draws attention, and “looks like a leader.” Various studies have shown that tall men are often favored, and corporate CEOs are taller than average. But some of the most powerful leaders in history, such as Napoleon, Stalin, and Deng Hsiao Ping were little over five feet tall.

The traits-centered approach has not vanished from studies of leadership but it has been broadened and made more flexible. Traits have come to be seen as consistent patterns of personality rather than inherited characteristics. This definition mixes nature and nurture, and means that “traits” can to some extent be learned rather than merely inherited. We talk about leaders being more energetic, more risk-taking, more optimistic, more persuasive, and more empathetic than other people, but these traits are affected partly by a leader’s genetic makeup and partly by the environments in which the traits were learned and developed. An interesting experiment once demonstrated the interaction between nature and nurture. A group of employers were asked to hire workers who had been ranked by their looks. If the employers saw only the resumes, beauty had no impact on hiring. Surprisingly, however, when telephone interviews were included in the process, beautiful people did better even though unseen by the employers. A lifetime of social reinforcement based on their genetic looks may have encoded into their voice patterns a tone of confidence that could be projected over the phone. Nature and nurture became thoroughly intertwined.

Genetics and biology matter in human leadership, but they do not determine it in the way that the traditional heroic stereotypes suggests. The “Big Man” type of leadership works in societies based on networks of tribal cultures which rely on personal and family honor and loyalty, but such social structures are not well adapted for coping with today’s complex information based world. In modern societies, institutional constraints such as constitutions and impartial legal system circumscribe such heroic figures. Societies that rely on heroic leaders are slow to develop the civil society and broad social capital that are necessary for leading in a modern networked world. Modern leadership turns out to be less about who you are, or how you were born than about what you have learned and what you do as part of a group. Nature and nurture intertwine, but nurture is much more important in the modern world than the heroic paradigm gives it credit for. Modern information societies require us to go beyond the big man stereotype of leadership.

Women’s non-hierarchical style and relational skills fit a leadership need in the world of knowledge based organizations that men are less well prepared by society to fill.

In terms of gender stereotypes, men gravitate to the hard power of command while women are collaborative and intuitively understand the soft power of attraction. Americans tend to describe leadership with tough male stereotypes, but recent leadership studies show increased success for what was once considered a “feminine style”. In information based societies, networks are replacing hierarchies and knowledge workers are less deferential. Leadership is changing in the direction of “shared leadership,” and “distributed leadership” with images of leaders in the center of a circle rather than atop a hierarchy.

George W. Bush once described his role as “the decider,” but there is much more to modern leadership than that. Modern leaders need an ability to use networks, to collaborate, and to encourage participation. Women’s non-hierarchical style and relational skills fit a leadership need in the new world of knowledge based organizations and groups that men are less well prepared by society to fill, and men need to learn these skills as well as to value them in their women colleagues.

In terms of gender stereotypes, when women fought their way to the top of organizations, they often had to adopt a “masculine style,” violating the broader social norm of female “niceness.” Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi are famous examples. In the new view, with the information revolution and democratization demanding more participatory leadership, the “feminine style” is becoming a path to more effective leadership.

Nonetheless, women lag in leadership positions, holding only 5 per cent of top corporate positions, and a minority of positions in elected legislatures (ranging from 45 per cent in Sweden to 16 per cent in the United States.) One study of the 1,941 rulers of independent countries over the 20th century found only 27 women, and half of them came to power as widows or daughters of a male ruler. Less than one per cent of 20th century rulers were women who gained power on their own.

Leaders are often tempted to decide quickly to reduce followers’ anxieties rather than to use the anxieties as a learning experience. This is a very different image of the work of leadership than simply to be ‘the decider.’

What holds women back? Gender bias, lack of experience, primary care-giver responsibilities, bargaining style, and plain old discrimination all help to explain this gender gap. The
traditional career paths have not enabled women to gain the requisite experiences for top leadership positions in many organizational contexts. Research shows that even in democratic societies, women face a higher social risk than men when attempting to negotiate for career-related resources such as compensation. Women are generally not well-integrated into male networks that dominate organizations and gender stereotypes about the expression of emotions still hamper women who try to overcome such barriers. Tears remain dangerous weapons, whether in the boardroom or on the campaign trail.

This gender bias is beginning to break down, but it is a mistake to identify the new type of leadership we need in an information age as female. Even positive stereotypes are bad for women, men, and effective leadership. We need to see leaders less in heroic terms of command than in encouraging participation throughout an organization, group, nation or network. Questions of appropriate style — when to use hard and soft power skills — are equally relevant for men and women, and should not be clouded by traditional gender stereotypes. In some circumstances men will need to act more “like women” and women more “like men.” The key choices will depend not on gender, but how individuals combine hard and soft power skills to produce smart strategies, and that will depend on the development of contextual intelligence.

Contextual intelligence is an intuitive diagnostic skill that helps a leader to align tactics with objectives to create smart strategies in new situations.

Understanding context is crucial for effective leadership regardless of gender. Some situations call for autocratic decisions and some require the opposite. There is an infinite variety of contexts in which leaders have to operate, but it is particularly important for leaders to understand culture, distribution of power resources, followers’ needs and demands, time urgency, and information flows.

The leadership theorist Ronald Heifetz argues that the first thing a leader needs to diagnose is whether the situation calls for technical and routine solutions, or requires adaptive change. In the former case, the leader may want to clarify roles and norms, restore order, and quickly provide a solution. In the latter case, the leader may want to let conflict emerge, challenge unproductive norms and roles, and let the group feel external pressures in a range it can stand so that it learns to identify and master the adaptive challenge. This may require delaying decision. Leaders are often tempted to decide quickly to reduce followers’ anxieties rather than to use the anxieties as a learning experience. This is a very different image of the work of leadership than simply to be “the decider.”

General Electric prides itself on producing leaders, but half of GE high flyers who went on to become CEOs of other Fortune 500 companies had disappointing records. Why do some leaders succeed in one context and fail in another? A common answer is “horses for courses.” Some run better on a dry track and some in mud. Many a good CEO turns out to be a disappointment when appointed as a cabinet secretary. And many a government official who becomes a university president has trouble adapting to the flat power structure of academic life.

Contextual intelligence is an intuitive diagnostic skill that helps a leader to align tactics with objectives to create smart strategies in new situations. It implies both a capability to discern trends in the face of complexity as well as adaptability while trying to shape events. Like surfers, leaders with contextual intelligence have the judgment to adjust to new waves and ride them to success. Contextual intelligence allows leaders to adjust their style to the situation and to their followers’ needs. It enables them to create flows of information that “educate their hunches.” It involves the broad political skill of not only sizing up group politics, but of understanding the positions and strengths of various stakeholders so as to decide when and how to use transactional and inspirational skills. It is the self-made part of luck. In unstructured situations, it is often more difficult to ask the right questions than to get the right answer. Leaders with contextual intelligence are skilled at providing meaning or a road map by defining the problem that a group confronts. They understand the tension between the different values involved in an issue, and how to balance the desirable with what is feasible.

Psychologists generally agree that multiple forms of intelligence exist. What we today measure as IQ was originally developed a century ago in the context of the French school system, and thus it focuses on linguistic, mathematical, and spatial skills that tend to predict success in school, (though not necessarily in life.) Contextual intelligence consists partly of cognitive analytic capabilities and partly of tacit knowledge built up from experience. Tacit knowledge tends to be implicit and inarticulate, or expressed in rules of thumb. In some situations, such “street smarts” are much more important to success than “school smarts.” In novel situations, judgment is more important than experience.

Contextual intelligence also requires emotional intelligence. Without sensitivity to the needs of others, pure cognitive analysis and long experience may prove insufficient for effective leadership. Ronald Reagan, for example, was often faulted on his pure cognitive skills, but he generally had good contextual intelligence. Jimmy Carter had good cognitive skills, but was often faulted on his contextual intelligence. As one wag put it, he was better at counting the trees than seeing the forest.

The best leaders are able to transfer their skills across contexts. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, was successful both as a military leader and as a president. Many leaders have a fixed repertoire of skills, which limit and condition their responses to new situations. A CEO who succeeds in manufacturing may fail in finance or fall flat in Silicon Valley. To use an information age metaphor, leaders need to develop broader bandwidth and tune carefully for different situations. Good leaders avoid stereotypes – whether about warriors or gender – and cultivate their contextual intelligence.

About the author

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University and author of The Powers to Lead and The Future of Power.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.