Study after study shows that transferring what you know from one context to another is difficult and unreliable. Ron Johnson, Jeff Smisek, Juergen Schrempp, Marissa Mayer, and Richard Thoman aren’t outliers, they’re just some of the more familiar examples of a phenomenon that is all too common. None of them “lost their touch” or were exposed as frauds – they only changed settings. It bears repeating: skills are more specific and more difficult to transfer than many of us would like to believe. You can’t divorce performance outcomes from context, because the context is the thing you’re actually good at.
So what is context? And why is it such a critical determinant of performance? Google defines context as “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” As that definition implies, you cannot fully understand and assess an outcome without understanding thecircumstances that formed the setting.
It’s true for political outcomes and the political leaders that produce them. It would be foolish to assume that Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill would have been effective leaders in different nations and times. And the same is true for business outcomes and the business leaders that produce those. The context is what makes a person good or bad.