Professionalizing Leadership* – Context is Critical, Says Kissinger

In Professionalizing Leadership, I write “I cannot at all understand why most leadership conversations and curricula exclude the conception of context. Why is so little attention paid to the development of contextual consciousness (being aware of the importance of context), of contextual expertise (being familiar with the components of context), and of contextual intelligence (being strategic about context to attain designated goals)?”

The question came to mind again yesterday, as I read Walter Russell Mead’s column in the Wall Street Journal, “A Word from Henry Kissinger.”  Mead was describing how when he recently agreed to become a regular contributor to the Journal, he went for advice to the dominant figure in American foreign policy in the last half century, Henry Kissinger. What, Mead wanted to know from the nonagenarian oracle, was his advice for the new columnist? “Mr. Kissinger,” Mead reports, “had only a word for me. What a column on international affairs should seek to provide, he said, is ‘context.’” In other words, what leaders need to know, the most important things that leaders need to know are contextual components such as “cultural and historical imperatives.”  Which is precisely why omitting context from learning to lead, from leadership education, is pure folly.

Mead continues: “When Mr. Kissinger advises a columnist to focus on ‘context,’  he is suggesting that there is value in helping readers to appreciate the kaleidoscopic variety and sometimes dizzying complexity of the forces at work on the international scene.” But, of course, the point is a broader one. The international scene is not the only context of “kaleidoscopic variety and sometimes dizzying complexity.” In fact, most leaders now find themselves in contexts that are complicated. So leader learner, here’s my two cents. Focus less on yourself and more on the circumstance within which you are situated!


*My latest book, Professionalizing Leadership (link below), was just released by Oxford University Press. From time to time my posts will focus on related topics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *