Like members of a once-popular band, leaders like to go “back to the basics” – hoping that their tried and true strategies and approaches will work one more time. The reality is that context matters in leadership. And to that end, leaders must constantly learn and constantly re-invent the approach they take with their teams and staff.
In the summer of 1997 Tiger Woods had played in 17 events and won 5 of them. He was ranked #2 – in all of professional golf. I don’t know about you, but if I got to that level in anything I was doing professionally, I’d be pretty happy. I bet you would too.
As a child – starting from when he was 18 months old – he’d swung a golf club with his left hand. And at some point he’d made a change to swinging with his right. So changing his swing wasn’t a crazy concept to him. Even though few of us would radically undergo a dramatic change to anything that had worked well enough to put us into the pros and get us to #2.
Nevertheless, in 1997 Tiger realized that the power of his swing was based on how fast his hips turned. The explosive power he had, in twisting at the hip, had to be matched with the perfect timing of his hand. And as I understand it, he realized that that approach wouldn’t serve him in the long run.
So he changed his swing.
To be clear, people both before and after that had tried to change their swings and had failed miserably. This was a risk. But he took it. And even though it took a couple years to get it right, from 1999 until 2004 he spent more than 250 weeks in the number one position.
Then in 2004, guess what happened? He changed his swing. Again. While he was ranked #1. And from 2005 to 2010, he spent even more weeks at the number #1 position.
I don’t think there is anyone in the world who better embodies the truth that Max De Pree once wrote, “We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.”
Another way to say this: what got you here won’t get you there!
Leadership is contextual
Most leaders I speak with fear change. They don’t say it out loud. They don’t even think of things that way.
But when you push in deep, you see the commitment and reliance on what they already know and understand. On what’s worked in the past.
But leadership is contextual.
Context matters. More than almost anything else. A lesson learned in one context won’t necessarily apply in another (which is why most advice ends up being useless when applied without considering contextual differences).
To use a different but a compelling sports example, you only have to look at the brief coaching role Mike D’Antoni had with the Lakers a few years ago. An odd choice for the team and its particular strengths, the owners hired D’Antoni and he proceeded to put square pegs into round holes.
D’Antoni’s departure announcement said it best, “D’Antoni’s signature up-tempo style of play seemed an odd match from the start with the aging, ball-dominating Bryant and the Lakers, who ran Jackson’s deliberate triangle offense to perfection.”
The answer is innovation
The answer to this kind of contextual leadership, once you recognize that what got you here may not get you where you want to go, is innovation.
But to be clear, I don’t mean it in the way it’s most commonly used – as a buzzword applied to just about any new process.
I define innovation in three parts:
The action – innovation isn’t about thinking. It’s about making decision and taking action. The risk – the logical conclusion of a current approach isn’t innovative. Risk and courage are required. The result – value must be created. Without it, it is simply a failed experiment.
In other words, innovation is the risky actions we take to successfully create valuable new results.
The risk is worth it
For leaders this means that our development of people can’t simply be an approach where we do what we’ve always done and watch for the survival of the fittest. This will result in a team that may work well with our strategies but never deliver on the results we need or want.
Creative destruction is a term used primarily in the product development space. But it can be applied in leadership dynamics simply because we know the reality that our old ways, approaches, and frameworks may not serve us.
Leadership requires us to be willing to reinvent. To innovate. Even when it’s risky. Even when we’re sitting in the number one or two spot.
In October of 2014, to end with a non-sports example, Taylor Swift released her 1989 album. It was her fifth. She’d already done everything a Country Music singer / songwriter could have hoped for, and won every award she could have imagined. But in late 2014 she released a completely different album – a massively successful pop album. In doing so, she created something that was completely and totally her, while also being completely and totally different.
Our challenge, as leaders, is to know enough about ourselves and our strengths to hold on to what is uniquely our own skills and talents, while also being willing to completely change everything about how we work as we move into new situations.
Because leadership is contextual. And what got you here won’t necessarily get you there.