Contextual Leadership

What's the "best" leadership style?

From Scientific Management to Servant Leadership and beyond, there are a number of theories and philosophies out there about management and leadership styles. Some think Taylor was completely off the mark with Scientific Management. Others think a Servant Leader is weak and ineffective.

Some attribute the different styles to the social structures of the time; neither is necessarily better or worse, but that each trend matches with the prevailing thought of the generation in power. Scientific Management, for example, made sense because it came about during the "Progressive Era" where applying science, medical, and engineering to various fields was in vogue and all a part of driving corruption out of companies and government.

Others are certain that a specific approach is universally superior to other approaches.

"A good boss knows how to command the troops."
"No, a good boss involves everyone in decisions."
"That's crazy. Consensus results in suboptimal compromise and kills true progress."
"That's not true. Besides, centralized command ignores differing views and misses opportunities."

What if everyone is correct?

What if certain types of management or leadership rose in popularity because they fit the social structures of the time? And what if those social structures were influenced by other factors? Factors that also impacted work. And what if each leadership style was optimal for it's given context?

Contextual Leadership


Let's look at Cynefin as our context map for business. Cynefin is a sense making framework. It can be used to help understand complex situations in which your organization is struggling. The Cynefin framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these, simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic, require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. In this article, we posit that Cynefin is not only good for thinking about decision making and leadership behaviors, but also about organizational structures.



Many of us talk about our day to day jobs being chaotic. In reality, if you are performing knowledge work, such as product design or software development and you are truly in chaos on a regular basis, your organization is doomed. It feels chaotic, perhaps, because we are actually in the complex context while applying organizational structures, management styles, and decision making protocols that are appropriate for some other context. More on that later.

“Unfortunately, most leadership “recipes” arise from examples of good crisis management. This is a mistake.

— David J Snowden

In a chaotic context, searching for the right answer is futile. The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they constantly shift and no discernable patterns exist. This is the realm of unknowables. The events of September 11, 2001, fall into this category.

The appropriate organizational structure is a dominator hierarchy. With a dominator hierarchy, there is a static pyramidal structure with a clear chain of command, decisions are made at the top and people identify with specific job titles within the hierarchy.

A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to move out of the chaotic context. Communication is top-down and either direct or broadcast; there’s simply no time to ask for input. The appropriate management style, therefore, is command. There is one individual commanding the activities of others. This is the context where "command and control" is appropriate.

The decision making protocol is simple; act, sense, and respond. Decisions are isolated to a single individual. There is no consensus building, no debate, and very limited solicitation of input from others.

Organizational Design Pattern: Dominator Hierarchy
Leadership Style: Command
Decision Making: There is a single decision maker. The framework is Act-Sense-Respond.


In the obvious context, work is stable and repeatable. There are clear cause and effect relationships, easily discernable by most everyone. In this context, the "right" answer is often evident. Hence it is the context of "best practices"; where there is truly a best way to perform a particular task. Work that is typically process oriented and changes infrequently, such as order processing or accounts receivable, falls within the obvious domain.

“Leaders are susceptible to entrained thinking, a conditioned response that occurs when people are blinded to new ways of thinking...

— David J Snowden

The optimal organizational structure is still a dominator hierarchy with a static pyramidal structure and clear chain of command. Process and procedure decisions are typically made at the top by either a single leader, such as the CEO, or by a leadership team comprised of the highest ranked individuals in the organization.

The appropriate management style, however, moves from strict command to coordination. Best practices indicate how employees are to proceed in different situations. Worker decisions are primarily made by sensing the situation, categorizing it, and responding with the appropriate procedure. This allows management to focus on the bigger picture, strategy, and implementation of practices. Day to day interaction with employees is not necessary because disagreement about what needs to be done is rare.

Organizational Design Pattern: Dominator Hierarchy
Leadership Style: Coordination
Decision Making: Leaders optimize procedures through Analysis and testing of new ideas. Workers execute procedures through Sense-Categorize-Respond


In the complicated context, work is no longer as straightforward. Best practices are a misnomer in this context as there may be multiple, equally correct approaches to a problem. We need to think in terms of good practices, allowing for more options. While there is still a strong relationship between cause and effect, it is no longer easily discernable by most people. Work such as automotive repair, physical engineering, or searching for deposits of natural resources fall within this domain. These jobs require a deeper level of expertise and are frequently better informed by including multiple experts. 

“[One] potential obstacle is “analysis paralysis,” where a group of experts hits a stalemate, unable to agree on any answers because of each individual’s entrained thinking—or ego

— David J Snowden

The optimal organizational structure is still a hierarchy, but we move from dominator hierarchy to a Supportive Hierarchy. In the Supportive Hierarchy, the reporting structures are similar to dominator hierarchy, but there is an emphasis is on empowering employees. We are relying on their ability to analyse a situation, compare insights, come to a conclusion, and respond accordingly. We want to introduce simple decision making protocols here, such as parallel thinking or expression of intent, to reduce overall friction and establish a common understanding. Without such protocols, we are more prone to analysis paralysis and tension as a result of disagreement.

The appropriate management style is one of mentor. Employees have more freedom; we rely on them now for decision making. Decision making protocols are in place, allowing employees high levels of autonomy. Managers are less focused on being in charge and more focused on facilitating decisions and removing impediments that serve as blockers to decision making and execution.

Servant leadership is another common and effective management style here.

Organizational Design Pattern: Supportive Hierarchy
Leadership Style: Mentor / Servant
Decision Making: Leaders create environments conducive to employee empowerment. Workers make decisions through Sense-Analyse-Respond. Additional decision making protocols are in place.


In the Obvious context, we can typically determine one best practice. In the Complicated context, there is at least one right answer. But, in a Complex context, right answers cannot be pre-determined. We can only see cause and effect after the fact. And were we to follow the exact same steps a second time, we'd end up elsewhere.

“Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.

— David J Snowden

Contrast building a deck with gardening. Building a deck is complicated work, but you can analyse the land, consider your preferences, and build a deck to suit. Save your own limitations, that deck will turn out precisely as you intended. It is a fixed known end. Gardening is essentially complex work. You can analyse the land, consider your preferences, and plant accordingly. Despite your best efforts, that garden will not turn out precisely as you intended. The garden is in constant flux; pests disturb it, some plants die unexpectedly, others flourish more than anticipated, weather patterns change, your neighbor puts in shrubbery that block the light and attract natural predators.

The complex context is where most modern businesses find themselves, whether or not they recognize it is another matter. As we cannot predict, despite our desire to be able to do so, our best approach is to probe, sense, and respond. This is to perform small tests, ascertain the results, and adjust accordingly.

The optimal organizational structure is a significant departure from our familiar hierarchies. In the complex context, the optimal structure is a Distributed Network. There are no managers, directors, VPs, or SVPs. You commonly won't find executive roles beyond those required by law. In a high functioning Distributed Network, there are no centralized functions such as HR, Accounting, and Marketing as these responsibilities are distributed along with all others.

Decision making protocols are now paramount. Beyond parallel thinking or expression of intent, organizations need a shared understanding of how decisions are made, including changes to organizational governance. Optimally, this set of rules is relatively small, simple, and malleable. Holacracy, one form of Distributed Network organization has a 30-page "constitution" that sets forth all the rules for the model. While 30 pages sounds like a great deal of material at first, consider all of the written (and unwritten) rules and procedures that exist in your own organization today - it likely amounts to 300 pages or more.

Organizational Design Pattern: Distributed Network
Leadership Style: Facilitative / Collaborative
Decision Making: Decision making occurs distributed throughout the network with clear decision making protocols that allow for rapid cycles of probe, sense, and respond.


There are optimal structures, leadership styles, and decision-making protocols for varying types of work and complexity domains. This is not to say applying other patterns won't work. We've seen Control Hierarchy work in a complex context and we've seen Distributed Network work in an obvious context. But if it is optimal performance you seek, be keenly aware of the context you are in and adjust your organization, leadership style, and decision-making accordingly. If you are in a complex domain and struggling with compliance and efficiency whilst maintaining a hierarchy and centralized governance, perhaps it is time to stop trying to fix the workers and change the system.