Skip to main content
leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

We are living a world of change like never before. The forces of change are coming at us in wave after wave with increasing fury and in totally unpredictable ways. Some leaders are simply overwhelmed by what they face. Others are stunned by fear and others still are unsure what to do. In each and every case, leaders are facing the need to transform rather than tweak – and yet very few are equipped for the task at hand.

Making sense of the world in which we live, decoding it and then shaping it in ways an organization and its people can better understand and willingly accept is the first challenge facing the transformational leader.

This challenge is about:

– Helping people to connect the dots.

– Allowing people, at all levels, to get past the noise, chaos and distraction to arrive at a simpler, cleaner and less-cluttered understanding of the situation.

– Opportunity identification, opportunity management and opportunity maximization.

– Taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves in the midst of chaos, confusion and discord.

There are two transformational leadership competencies required to successfully navigate the future.

The first is what is known as contextual intelligence. This is the ability to sense subtle shifts in the environment, to become aware of those changes before anyone else, and to predict their likely implications. It is the ability to put things into crystal-clear perspective and then accurately frame the picture so others can understand it. Naturally, there is then the need to communicate the picture in a way that others can grasp and comfortably relate to.

The crafting of a transformational message by the leader is surely more art than science. We know an appeal to emotion is critical to having people accept the need for change and make the necessary adjustments to their previously held mental models. The leader needs to not only have an intuitive sense of the changing environment and what it portends but must project absolute confidence in the new direction.

Contextual intelligence is the highly sensitive radar system a transformational leader needs to constantly scan the environment, looking for the signals emanating from the future which suggest the new direction. It is what the great leaders have always seized upon to drive their businesses forward. It is the ability to connect disparate elements and combine them into a vivid picture of a future state.

The second transformational leadership competency is strategic intelligence. It encompasses three transformational leadership capabilities.

First, is a deep and clear insight into the core issues. This is the intuitive, penetrating understanding of what is actually driving the need for change and how it presents new opportunities for those who are open to them.

Second, is sharp, prophetic foresight as to how things will actually play out. This is the kind of expertise of the chess master, a soothsaying ability that allows the leader to predict the likely path change will take and the obstacles along the way.

Third, is a hyperalert and carefully honed peripheral vision. In fact, peripheral vision is perhaps the single most important of the three. It is essentially what will help a leader avoid the risk of being sideswiped by a random event or being bypassed in the fast lane. It is the ability to manage what authors and business professors George Day and Paul Schoemaker have called the "vigilance gap."

Together, contextual intelligence and strategic intelligence effectively turn away from the practices of the past. They discard the slow, safe, linear, incremental strategic-planning process that many companies still practise. They replace it with a new, modern emphasis on the much more important, up front and intellectually demanding strategic thinking and cognitive processing capabilities.

Doug Williamson (@bluntleader) is CEO of the Beacon Group and author of the book Straight Talk on Leadership. He specializes in organizational and leadership transformation, working with senior executives, their teams and their organizations around the world.

Interact with The Globe