The Mastery of Context

"Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we've seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating." — David Brooks, The New York Times

Leaders who come up through the ranks are prone to a serious mistake. They mistake content for context.

What’s the difference?

Context means "weaving together; the wholeness of things; the possibility of what could be." Transformational leaders set the context for their organizations by helping their people understand the big picture, understand what is emerging around them in society and the marketplace, and create opportunities for individual and collective contribution to a meaningful future.

Management is a very different domain than leadership. Managers oversee action. They make decisions that ensure that action occurs in efficient and effective ways. More often, management is concerned with the content of business. That's a valuable contribution to enterprise but it says nothing aboutcontext.

Transformational leaders don’t neglect the content of their business. On the contrary, they have a deep technical knowledge of the business and the industry in which they operate. It is this technical knowledge, and the support of competent people, that allows them to turn their attention towards the work of context setting, and to the broader issues of governance.

To attend to the context of the organization, a transformational leader's job description should entail the following responsibilities:

  • Defining Business philosophy: including the nature and purpose of the enterprise, its role in the larger society, and its moral ethical obligations.
  • Identifying Vision and Mission: defining a meaningful and purposeful preferred future for the organization, its value equation, and its mission in the marketplace and society.
  • Setting Values and Guiding Principles: the assumptions, principles, traits, qualities and code of conduct that will guide decision-making.
  • Planning Business Strategy: the direction and means that the organization uses to ensure that its products and services outperform the competition.
  • Envisioning Organizational Design: the structure that an organization adopts to integrate and direct it activities. Structures, roles, responsibilities and authority must be factored into organizational design to ensure good governance and organizational effectiveness.
  • Stewarding Organizational Culture: the development of an environment where people can do their best work.
  • Developing Leaders: ensuring that the practice of leadership is wide and deep within the organization and that people are provided opportunities to grow in accordance with their commitment, skills and contributions.
  • Providing Good Governance: ensuring the organization lives up to its legal, moral and performance responsibilities and that power, authority and resources are used effectively and ethically.
  • Managing Risk: the identification, prioritization and mitigation of risks that can come from financial markets, legal liabilities, project failures, competitive attacks, ethical dilemmas or natural causes and which may impede or threaten the organization's operations and mandate.

There's enough there to keep any one person busy and then some! Don't worry. If you're struggling with context issues, we can help you through our consulting arm.

Those that are leading small businesses or teams within larger organizations, you’re not off the hook. These responsibilities are yours too. They may not take as much time as the execution of your business plan, but you must pay attention to the context of your responsibilities as well. Our coaches can help you ensure that you factor context into your business.

Technical knowledge is the domain of the technician. Contextual knowledge is the domain of the transformational leader. When we confuse the two, "smart people make mistakes."

Posted on March 1, 2010 .