Understanding Circumstances as a Leader

August 1, 2013, 0 Comments

The following is a portion of my doctoral project on the subject of missional leadership. In it, you will find an interesting argument by some in the leadership literature about whether or not a leader should pay attention to the circumstances of culture when choosing where to lead.


Donald T. Phillips has written several works about the style of leaders in American history. In his book which surveys the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, he says of George Washington, “Part of Washington’s leadership style was to listen first, then communicate his feelings. While such a technique may sound like common sense, it can be argued that history is filled with stories of failed leaders who acted without asking—or who took decisive action without first verifying key information.”[1] Leaders, like Washington, first seek to understand their surroundings and the status of their followers before moving into action. From Phillips observation, it is seen that leadership involves movement. Pastors engage Christians into the work of the church, business owners direct employees to fulfill the work of the company, and politicians guide entire nations. However, in the literature of leadership, it seems to be a common occurrence that leaders are taught to discern their own context before setting strategy or causing followers to move into action.

According to the book jacket of Blue Ocean Strategy, since its 2005 publishing, the book has since been released in forty-one languages.[2] It presents the idea that external circumstances must be observed for a company to gain success. The premise of the book is the existence of two different environments in which business can be accomplished. The first, and most common, place in which to operate is “red oceans.” The term refers to “the known market space” where “companies try to outperform their rivals and grab a greater share of existing demand.”[3] The visual image is to invoke the idea of bloody ocean water where sharks are competing for a limited food supply. However, the authors maintain that business should move toward the “blue oceans.” They explain that blue oceans are the “untapped market space,” in which one should “demand creation, and the opportunity for highly profitable growth.” However, they also note that “blue oceans are largely uncharted.”[4]

The intent of the authors and their theory is that business leaders need to understand the environment in which they are doing business. They wrote, “To seize new profit and grow opportunities, they [businesses] need to create blue oceans.”[5] If the environment is too full with other businesses all competing for the same customers, then one must either locate a new set of customers in another place, or recreate one’s business in such a way that one no longer competes with others. The goal is to analyze in such a way that innovation is natural for the company. However, they argue that innovating the production process is not enough. Instead, upon a better understanding of the circumstances, “value innovation as the cornerstone of blue ocean strategy” is necessary.[6] The authors stated, “Value innovation requires companies to orient the whole system toward achieving a leap in value for both buyers and themselves.”[7] In comparison to the simple tactic of changing production processes, “value innovation is based on the view that market boundaries and industry structure are not given and can be reconstructed by the actions and beliefs of industry players.”[8] As they advocate looking outwardly for untapped markets, they also advise that the company restructure to adopt “new best practice rules” in order to exploit the “blue oceans” discovered or created.[9] The impact of such thinking is that an organization will consistently seek to understand both the internal and external factors that affect their work. Blue Ocean Strategy calls for leadership that is one of keen observation that leads to effective leadership for profitability in companies.

Interestingly, a view of dissent exists against the position of analyzing the circumstances and making leadership decisions based on critical analysis. One such book that represents this dissenting view is Rework.[10] Fried and Hansson write, “The real world isn’t a place, it’s an excuse. It’s a justification for not trying. It has nothing to do with you.”[11] They speak harshly about those who gauge market forces and make decisions based on the “real world.” The authors direct their readers to “ignore the real world” of obsessing over the market forces and the competition.[12] As the entrepreneurs who founded, they advocate that leaders must take risks regardless of the circumstances. Their position on launching a business or initiative is to “ignore the details early on”[13] and “stop imagining what’s going to work. Find out for real.”[14] These two young men have built an online company that provides project management and communication solutions for other industries.

The authors of Rework press their ideas further by even writing that “planning is guessing” and, thus, it is best simply to move into a posture of constant improvisation for leading an organization.[15] The entire premise of the book is built around the idea that the best way forward is the one most natural to the leader. In their framework of leadership, taking note of circumstances, soliciting outside opinions, and long-term planning only inhibit the growth of a business. Instead, they maintain that the leader must create the circumstances in which the company operates. They advise that leaders create audiences for their products, rather than merely holding on to a customer base.[16] Later, they advocate that you should “own your bad news” in order to be productive out of it.[17] Then, they say that leaders must leave behind the need to become like others and simply “sound like you” instead.[18] For these two authors, the key to leadership is not in the circumstances, but rather in pursuing a passionate dream despite any circumstances. Additionally, it is to remain focused on the internal goals of the organization and bring along people who are willing to share in that goal. Thus, though Fried and Hansson are not very disposed to observing external circumstances, they do maintain the need to be mindful of the internal environment or ethos of the organization.

As stated earlier, Rework represents a dissenting view in the realm of leadership in seeking a keen sense of circumstances. On the other hand, one work that presses toward the view of building a strong sense of internal circumstances is Multipliers by Liz Wiseman.[19] She is the president of her own company that does research and coaching for executive leadership. In preparation for writing Multipliers, Wiseman enlisted a Stanford University Ph.D. student, Greg McKeown, to aid her in a study that would answer the question, “What are the vital few differences between intelligence Diminishers and intelligence Multipliers, and what impact do they have on organizations?”[20]

The study they embarked upon was to discover the internal circumstances that led to greater effectiveness in leadership. Ultimately, the study discovered that the leader who multiplies his or her leadership through others held on to five disciplines: “attract and optimize talent,”[21] “create intensity that requires one’s best thinking,”[22] “extend challenges,”[23] “debate decisions,”[24] and “instill ownership and accountability.”[25] Each of these characteristics was contrasted with character traits of leaders who diminish others.

The study by Wiseman is represented well in the chapter highlighting the need for leaders for become challengers within an organization. It is “The Essential Difference Between How Know-It-Alls and Challengers provide direction and pursue opportunities for their organization.”[26] The subsequent book from the study expands on the ideas of how leaders must better understand the people in their organizations in order to empower them to fulfill the purpose of the organization. It is a knowledge of internal circumstances that brings about a greater probability of success. Multiplying leaders “define opportunities that challenge people to go beyond what they know how to do.”[27] Such leaders, therefore, allow for others in the organization with specialized knowledge to inform the group, or those with specialized skills are allowed to put them to work. Either case is different from the diminishing leader who feels the need to showcase his or her own knowledge and skill and, thus, remains ignorant of what others are capable of doing.

The idea that leaders seek to understand every aspect of circumstances seems to be embraced at differing levels. Wiseman notes that multipliers in business “provide a starting point, but not a complete solution.”[28] Therefore, in her study, it is critical to know the circumstances in which one leads but also allow room for others to bring about the necessary change. To the contrary, others state that you should “scratch your own itch”[29] and follow a “solve your own problem approach.”[30] Therefore, leaders from a more entrepreneurial style may not accept that external circumstances must guide their decisions, but many other effective leaders are generally aware of the internal realities of their organization and workers. Additionally, understanding the external circumstances of an organization’s marketplace is key to many leadership models.

[1] Donald T. Phillips, The Founding Fathers on Leadership: Classic Teamwork in Changing Times (New York, N.Y.: Warner Books, 1997), 81.

[2] W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press, 2005).

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework (New York, N.Y.: Crown Business, 2010).

[11] Ibid.,14.

[12] Ibid., 13.

[13] Ibid., 74.

[14] Ibid., 94.

[15] Ibid., 19.

[16] Ibid., 170.

[17] Ibid., 231–32.

[18] Ibid., 262–63.

[19] Liz Wiseman, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (New York, N.Y.: HarperBusiness, 2010).

[20] Ibid., 7.

[21] Ibid., 21.

[22] Ibid., 21.

[23] Ibid., 22.

[24] Ibid., 22.

[25] Ibid., 22.

[26] Ibid., 102.

[27] Ibid., 124.

[28] Ibid., 111.

[29] Fried and Hansson, 34.

[30] Ibid., 36.

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