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Why leadership is 5 times harder than you think

Leadership isn't one thing but the culmination of numerous tactics and contexts. Learn more about the five key contexts.

5 min read


Why leadership is 5 times harder than you think


As a leader, you should appreciate that the differentiating factor for creating and sustaining high performance in your workforce is … you. While it might not be a groundbreaking revelation, the fact that effective leadership is essential to employee work passion, customer satisfaction and organizational vitality does raise a set of questions worth considering.

  • Why don’t all organizations have formal leadership development programs?
  • Why don’t leaders spend as much time learning and improving leadership skills as they do their other job-related competencies?
  • Why is there no national or world-recognized leadership certification process?

The sad truth is that we undervalue leadership expertise. Too often, leadership is considered a title rather than a skill. Doctors, CPAs and attorneys spend years learning to practice medicine, tax preparation or the law. Yet somehow, we think anyone can step into an important leadership role and succeed. Not true. And you know it because you’ve been there.

Do you remember the day a staff member barged into your office to ask the same question for the umpteenth time? When you struggled through a team meeting that turned into a total waste of time and energy? When people resisted changing to a new software system? When you realized one of your biggest clients was demanding quality control parameters that exceeded your current capabilities?

You may also remember realizing the inevitable: Quick fixes don’t permanently resolve the gritty issues and dilemmas you face daily. Those short, pithy parables on leadership fell short. (I’ve written one. They’re fine for raising awareness or inspiring.) 

But when faced with reality, leadership doesn’t come down to three secrets or a checklist. Unfortunately, we tend to simplify leadership to the point of uselessness. It’s time we admit that leadership is complex.

Leadership is 5 times harder than you thought

Leadership is contextual: How you lead depends on who, what, where and when you lead. Consider these five leadership contexts. If you’re in a managerial role, you’re operating in at least two contexts — maybe more.

  1. Self context: Developing the mindset and the skillset to accept responsibility and take the initiative for succeeding in your work-related role.
  2. One-to-one context: Developing the abilities and focusing the energy of your direct reports so they can attain and sustain independent achievement in their work-related roles.
  3. Team context: Gathering, structuring and developing a team of people’s collective abilities and energies with a common purpose and guiding them to the achievement of interdependent goals and sustained high performance.
  4. Organizational context: Directly and indirectly influencing and aligning individual and team efforts toward fulfilling the organization’s purpose through systems, processes and structures.
  5. Alliance context: Using networks and bilateral relationships to create a third entity that extends beyond corporate boundaries and achieves the goals and serves the mutual interests of all alliance members.

Take a couple of minutes to reflect on a typical day. Sometimes you lead in the self context mode — setting your own goals, making action plans, solving a problem or considering how to propose a new idea. Later, you are coaching an underperforming sales rep in the one-to-one context or explaining new sales territories during a meeting in the team context.

Leadership is not only complex — it’s five times harder than you thought it would be. Being an effective leader not only requires an awareness of which context you’re leading, but you need to master different skills in each context.

Different contexts demand different skills

Maybe you’ve learned how to set SMART goals. Setting your own goals in the self context is one thing. Setting meaningful goals with someone you lead in the one-to-one context is more challenging. And you might be aware of five dysfunctions in the team, but you also need to understand that setting interdependent goals in the team context is exponentially complex.

Lacking awareness of the context you’re leading and not having the skills to lead in it can be dangerous—to you, those you lead and the organization. One famous example is former Disney CEO Michael Eisner

Credited with the regeneration of the Disney empire, Eisner’s leadership in the organizational and alliance contexts is legendary. His vision expanded Disney World theme parks. He built alliances with George Lucas and the Star Wars franchise. He ushered in a new (and prosperous) era of animation with the acquisition of Pixar. But by most accounts, Eisner was a dismal failure in the one-to-one context. His inability to groom a successor and the subsequent blowup and bailout of prized executives, notably Jeffrey Katzenberg, ultimately led to Eisner’s resignation.

If you are serious about leadership, take the practice of leadership seriously

Begin by identifying the contexts you lead. Then take note of how your leadership plays out differently in each context. A ubiquitous skill like listening morphs from paraphrasing in the one-to-one context to gatekeeping in the team context to establishing feedback systems in the organizational context. 

Leadership is not simple. Leadership is a complex practice that deserves more practice.  


Susan Fowler co-authored “Achieve Leadership Genius,” outlining five leadership contexts and their requisite skills. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and eight books, including bestsellers “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” and “Leading at a Higher Level” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit her website.

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