Discover more from Unfair Advantage
Why Coaches Must Adapt To Their Team
Contextual leadership is a strong predictor of team performance across industries.
Speaking to Bill Simmons about the championship hangover the Golden State Warriors were experiencing during the 2017/18 season, head coach Steve Kerr mused, “There’s a malaise that’s settled in. We just don’t have that same edge we’ve had the last couple of years. And I’m perfectly fine with that because it’s human nature [for motivation to wane after a championship] and we’ve got to pace ourselves and get to the end of the year.”
Kerr’s response was one of those record-scratch moments.
In the age of scripted interview answers, his authenticity was shocking.
He was perfectly fine with a malaise?
He was accepting of waning motivation?
Kerr’s answers go against everything we’ve been told to believe about team motivation and human performance. Yet, it also speaks volumes about his sharp understanding of team dynamics, and his acceptance of the new-age role of a coach.
In days-gone-by, sports coaches took a more hard-line, militaristic approach to leading. Rules, discipline, hierarchy, uniformity. Now, the elite coaches lead contextually, bringing together a melting pot of ideas to form a style of leadership that changes based on the situation, and the unique needs of the team at that time.
If we asked him about it, we feel confident that Steve Kerr would attribute some of his contextual nature to observing Phil Jackson work with Dennis Rodman. In his book Eleven Rings, Jackson explained how he prepared the existing Bulls team members before Rodman joined the team:
Before Dennis arrived at training camp, I had a long discussion with the players. I warned them that he was probably going to ignore some of the rules because it was hard for him to abide by certain guidelines. I would probably have to make some exceptions for him at times, I said. “You’re going to have to be grown up about this,” I added. And they were.
Let’s zoom in right here: with a team built in the image of Michael Jordan’s unwavering commitment, unmatched discipline, and unparalleled hard work, Phil Jackson willingly traded for a mischievous rule breaker, and then fronted his team to tell them they were the ones who’d need to be adult about it.
That’s gutsy coaching, and that’s contextual leadership.
It appears the players — particularly Kerr — took to the coach’s strategy right away, understanding what was truly important in keeping their team on track.
After Rodman returned from his third suspension of the season, Kerr and Jud Buechler approached Jackson to ask if the players could take a special bus trip to welcome Dennis back to the team. The coach agreed, and the players set off on their outing. At practice the following day (a game day, no less) Jackson said the players “were so out of it they could barely stand up,” and the Bulls went on to lose the game that night to the New Jersey Nets, the worst team in the NBA.
“But in the end it was worth it,” admitted Jackson. “Making Dennis feel as if he were part of the team again was more important than another W in the record books.”
Much like the mindfulness practice Jackson was famous for, the science also backs up contextual leadership — particularly what’s called “contextual intelligence.” It’s all about quickly recognizing the unique circumstances you’re in, and adapting your behavior to fit the circumstance. It turns out that contextually intelligent leaders — those who recognize and account for the contextual factors in their team — are a strong predictor of performance of teams across industries.
It’s also been suggested that leaders who fail are those that fail to account for the followers and context of the team.
Leaders who understand themselves and others in ambiguous environments like high-performance sport or business are best positioned to adapt and respond to the demands of their environments and deliver under pressure.
Here’s what contextual leadership looks like:
Future-Minded: the contextually intelligent leader has a sense of where the organization is headed.
Influencer: the leader has interpersonal skills to affect the actions and decisions of others.
Ensures awareness of mission: contextually intelligent leaders communicate how individual performance influences others and the accomplishment of the mission.
Socially Responsible: contextually intelligent leaders pay attention to what’s happening around them and express concern about these trends and issues.
Cultural sensitivity and multicultural leadership: contextual leaders appreciate the value of diversity and facilitate inclusion.
Diagnoses Context: the leader understands how to interpret and react to changing surroundings.
Change Agent: the contextual leader has the fortitude to challenge the status quo, even when it may be perceived as a threat.
Effective and constructive use of influence: the contextually intelligent leader has the interpersonal skills, power, and influence to affect others.
Intentional Leadership: the contextually intelligent leader is aware of their own strengths and limitations and works to improve.
Critical Thinking: the contextually intelligent leader makes connections, integrates, and synthesizes and applies actions, opinions, and information.
Contextual leaders understand that they are an important part of the mission, but are not the mission in and of themselves. Instead, their leadership is aimed at achieving a common goal and purpose, and adapting to the needs of the team — the same way that we expect team members to adapt their own goals and needs for the betterment of the organization.
What do you need to pay attention to in order to understand what your team needs at any given time?
Where are you willing to flex your skills to meet your team’s needs?
Where can you challenge yourself to be more contextual?
Which of the core attributes of contextual leaders are you strongest at? Which can you focus on developing?