Leaders have to be masters at managing context. It's a powerful tool in leadership but often goes underutilized and misunderstood.
What exactly is the role of context in effective leadership? What are the aspects that make it so powerful?
Webster’s defines context as (a) the parts of a written or spoken communication which precede or follow a word, sentence, or passage, and affect its meaning, and (b) the surrounding environment, circumstances or facts which help give a total picture of something.
The Latin root of the word texere is "to weave". In our day to day dealings, context is so interwoven into everything we do that we don't pay attention to it. And there lies both the oversight and the opportunity for leaders to be more effective.
Two powerful examples of the use of context in leadership
A couple of stories from our recent history stand out as powerful examples where leaders changed the context to effect a different set of actions and results.
On July 4th 1776 the founding fathers of the United States signed the declaration of independence. What they wrote in that document completely changed the context within which their actions would be judged. Before the declaration they would have been subjects acting unlawfully against the crown whereas after the declaration they were a sovereign nation rising up against tyrrany and standing for freedom.
While the actions(content) might have been the same, the meaning of their actions and that of the entire newly formed country was diametrically opposite in light of the new context that they created.
And this new context was created through language. It changed not only the meaning of their actions but the actions of the entire newly formed country and generations to follow.
In his inaugural address , JFK said “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” When he made this statement he completely changed how individuals looked at their personal actions. He changed it from a self-centered, what’s in it for me perspective, to one of contribution and a larger purpose beyond just themselves.
In one simple statement, he connected their personal meaning and purpose to the country’s. He used the power of context.
Instead of issuing a decree or orders, JFK changed the context so that the following actions changed naturally.
The founding fathers as well as JFK shifted how a given situation showed up by changing the context through the masterful use of language. They were engineering a context for their people. They were designing the context instead of accepting the default version.
By changing the context they increased the capacity for action both for themselves and others.
Leaders as managers of meaning and co-constructors of reality
In complex, non-technical situations, which is true of most organizations and leaders today, there is no one right answer. Meaning is created through the language constructs we use, and by how these constructs intervene in everyone’s mental models and representations of reality.
As Gail Fairhurst puts it, leaders need to:
…understand their role as managers of meaning and co-constructors of reality: individuals who [are] frequently powerless to control the turbulence of their environments, but who [can] control the context under which turbulence is seen.
– Gail Fairhurst 
As leaders we might not be able to change the factual details of our particular situation but we can change what meaning we make out of it and how we approach it.
The real world imposes constraints of many, many kinds … Freedom, in the real world, is not utter license to do as we please; it is much closer to Robert Frost’s famous formula—“moving easy in harness.”
Constraints are always there. It’s a matter of how we move within them.
– Robert Bethune 
Situations where the answers are not clear, that’s when context becomes the lynchpin. By controlling and changing the context of a given situation through language, leaders change the way a particular challenge or situation shows up for themselves and their teams.
When the tasks of work are complex, there are no shortcuts. Senior managers need to spend the time necessary to shape an organizational context that will allow people to focus on value.
– Yvez Morieux, Boston Consulting Group 
Our actions are driven by the way a situation shows up for us which in turn is influenced by the context within which it shows up. Thus by changing the context we change our ensuing actions.
If something occurs to us as “just laying bricks” we can change the context so that the same task shows up as “building a cathedral”. Our approach towards the former vs the latter is diametrically opposite.
One drives ownership and accountability whereas the other reeks of disengagement and callousness.
While the example might be simplistic, this drives at the very core of what leadership is about. One of the simplest definitions of leadership is “delivering on something that was not going to happen anyway”. And context is one of the keys to making that happen.
Leaders naturally have a larger context
In many ways, leaders automatically have more context than their teams. Not only are they one level removed but they are also embedded within other numerous and larger networks than their teams are.
Assuming that our teams have that same context is a classic mistake.
And because [leaders] are not caught up in the granular details of the work, they often see things that others do not. You might say they have more “cognitive room for maneuver” which puts them in a position to supercharge team performance—for example, by asking the right questions, challenging matter-of-fact assumptions, or providing a broader context and new information.
– Yvez Morieux, Boston Consulting Group 
Our teams are naturally more closer to the content so the leader might not necessarily be helping by delving in content themselves. In other words, control. Context is where leaders can make the most impact.
The role of context in leadership
What is it about context that makes it so powerful and why do leaders need to pay more attention to it? What are the different ways in which it plays a big role in leadership?
When one of your people does something dumb, don’t blame that person. Instead, ask yourself what context you failed to set. Are you articulate and inspiring enough in expressing your goals and strategy? Have you clearly explained all the assumptions and risks that will help your team to make good decisions? Are you and your employees highly aligned on vision and objectives?
— Reed Hastings, Erin Meyer in No Rules Rules 
Context is directly tied to results and performance
Context is the background from which all our actions flow regardless of our awareness of it. We can either design a context or let the situation dictate it and be affected by it.
Results are tied to actions. The intent behind changing a context is to increase our capacity for action.
Teams are often stuck in a stalemate because the challenge does not occur to them as actionable or as a reachable target. This is where most of the opportunity for improvement lies as people are usually pretty good at changing the content itself.
Context on the other hand tends to be hidden, transparent and not in focus. Thus it is the leader’s greatest opportunity to make an impact by changing the context or at least bringing the current context into focus so that it may be more accessible and thus can be modified or replaced completely
Performance is the result of what people do—their actions, interactions, and decisions. To understand organizational performance, managers must trace that performance back to what people do and the way their behaviors combine with each other to produce overall results. To change behavior, it is more effective to change the context instead of trying to change people’s mind-sets. When the context changes, behaviors adjust, and when people behave the way they do, their values, feelings, and mentalities evolve accordingly.
– Yvez Morieux & Peter Tollman in Six Simple Rules 
Context can unlock action and previously unseen possibilities. It can bring into focus aspects that were previously invisible.
Performance is directly tied to actions which are in turn tied to context. Instead of dictating or decreeing change in action which we as leaders are more inclined to do, a change in context can automatically trigger a change in behavior. This is especially relevant in knowledge work where our teams tend to know a lot more about the technical issues than we do.
Context drives the way your team sees the problem and hence behaves. Thus changing context can directly influence results. As Werner Erhard puts it, action is a correlate of the occurring and the occurring happens within a context.
Changing the context can change how a situation occurs to someone. This is different from just telling someone to think out of the box or to act differently.
Context drives motivation and engagement
The “soft approach” to management is common today as is evidenced by more team-building, recognitions, swag and so on. Companies are trying to appear more humane and try to manufacture connection. But this kind of superficial driving of engagement can go only so far. Sooner or later we either go numb to it or just see through it.
Purpose, meaning, and connection comes from within. They are not sustainable when it gets pushed from the outside.
We have the mistaken notion that meaning and purpose can be transmitted.
We humans have to create our own meaning and purpose. People need to connect the organization’s goals to their own. It’s the leader’s job to connect these two.
And context is the connecting tissue between organizational goals and people’s personal goals. Without context, your organization’s goals can appear meaningless and purposeless outside the paycheck they receive. This is how you get disengaged, low-performing teams that are on auto-pilot and who do not push themselves.
A leader’s job is to engineer the types of conversations that produce epiphanies. Conversations that reveal we are capable of original thought. Intelligent, spirited conversations that provide clarity and impetus for action, for change. Yet too often, we, the results-smitten, speak only of measurable goals, key business indicators, action plans, cash-flow projections, economic indicators, process, and procedure. All are worthy come-ons, yet true success requires conversations that exert a deeper magnetism, a pull as powerful as the tides.
– Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations 
Context can be the binding agent for high performance teams. Without context there is no common goal or purpose. In fact that is the function of having goals, purpose, and a vision. They give context that in turn drives our day-to-day actions.
Context creates empathy
A shared context can create natural empathy and team cohesion, shared meaning and purpose, and a sense of mission. Empathy can come more easily if one understands the context within which another person is acting. Instead of trying to manufacture empathy, it follows more naturally if we see the situation through the other person’s eyes, or in other words by understanding their context.
Context creates meaning
Context can create shared understanding which creates shared meaning which in turn creates more engagement. Without a context that is relatable, your message might not reach its intended audience. And assuming a common context is not smart either.
Context is the background of our understanding and what gives meaning to what we do. The very same actions under different contexts have very different meanings.
Without context there is no common background for understanding leading to misinterpretation and confusion.
Context clarifies purpose. Many of the things we do on a daily basic can come across as meaningless and directionless without an overarching context or purpose. The leader’s job is to create that context.
Context defines and colors our experience
All of our actions happen within a context and the context defines our experience more than the actual content and details of what is happening. Context can make the mundane extraordinary as described in the story of the three bricklayers where one sees it as a task, another as a career and the third as a calling. Leaders, by design or otherwise, end up creating the context in which these actions show up.
Barry Schwartz uses the metaphor of framing to describe the power of context. 
In framing the scene, we are setting the picture off from its surroundings, excluding what is on the outside and defining what is inside as special and worthy of attention. Frames tell us what is important and help us establish what should be compared with what. The capacity we have to frame enables us to do one of the most important things that practical wisdom demands—discern what is relevant about a particular context or event in regard to the decision we face. Learning to frame well helps make us wise.
– Barry Schwartz & Kenneth Sharpe in Practical Wisdom
Terms like vision, mission statement and core values have lost their meaning due to overuse and lack of connection to personal meaning and purpose. Context can help change that dynamic. When looking from the lens of context these are all tools to create the context within which organizations do their work and thus influence their culture.
Context is more malleable & accessible through language
Trying to change the content directly is where most of the frustration and helplessness around situations usually comes because you cannot change the facts of the situation. Context on the other hand tends to be more malleable and open to interpretation. This in turn increases the leader’s opportunity set to intervene.
Context is usually directly accessible through language and hence can be recursively looked at and changed through the skillful use of language.
It’s frequently been pointed out that man is unable to observe or recognize an event until there’s a prior context and language for naming the event. This inability, called paradigm blindness, is the direct consequence of a limitation of context.
– David Hawkins in Power vs Force 
Context is more amenable to the tools of language like metaphors, analogies and stories, and thus can be more malleable and accessible once we develop the ability to identify and change it.
Context is invisible and thus full of opportunities
Context is the invisible fabric through which our situation is interwoven. It is also where most of our blindspots, biases, blocks, mental models and taken-for-granted assumptions usually lie dormant and unexamined, while at the same time influencing our course of actions. This is equally true for companies and organizations.
When a company reinvents itself, it must alter the underlying assumptions and invisible premises on which its decisions and actions are based. This context is the sum of all the conclusions that members of the organization have reached.
It is the product of their experience and their interpretations of the past, and it determines the organization’s social behavior, or culture. Unspoken and even unacknowledged conclusions about the past dictate what is possible for the future.
– Richard Pascale, Tracy Goss/Reinvention Roller coaster/Harvard Business Review 
Context is not something that we are naturally wired to look into. A changing context naturally causes us insecurity and discomfort.
Our particular version of reality and our mental models have served a purpose and so we are likely to stick with it. It goes against our nature to try to change it ourselves.
This is where leaders can come in and try to unstick the pervading mental models by introducing and reinforcing new language and new interpretations that lead to different actions and different results. This is also the reason why organizational change can be so hard.
Context is key to skilled communication
Context can add a knockout punch to your communication. “Speaking out of context” is almost a cliche but on a more subtle note, not setting the context in your communication is something leaders cannot afford.
Assuming a shared context, without actually trying to engineer it, is also a recipe for miscommunication.
Understanding doesn’t proceed simply from examining data; it comes from examining data in a particular context. Information is useless until we know what it means.
To understand its meaning, we don’t only need to ask the right question; we also need the appropriate instruments with which to measure the data in a meaningful process of sorting and description.
– David Hawkins in Power vs Force 
As leaders we make the mistake of assuming communication as the transfer of information. Information on its own does not necessarily have any meaning. It can carry multitudes of meaning; the same content under different contexts can mean very different things.
The particular version of meaning that we want to transmit depends on the context within which we share that information. Thus context is almost more important than the details or the content itself.
Context helps navigate a VUCA world
Context can be the guiding north star or compass when navigating unchartered and uncertain territory.
The role of the senior manager in an agile organization is not to determine the content of people’s work. Rather, it is to provide the context for that work.
That means helping employees understand how their immediate objectives relate to the organization’s strategic and business goals. Senior managers need to articulate a robust strategic context that teams can use as a “North Star” that aligns their autonomy to those goals, guiding them as they exercise their initiative.
– Yvez Morieux, Boston Consulting Group 
Context drives ownership and accountability
Pushing agendas and strategies across the organization without making sure that everyone understands the context is a recipe for disengagement and apathy.
When combined with context, the same agendas and strategies drive participation and engagement as it ensures shared understanding. Thus context can engender participation, ownership and accountability.
Context changes locus of control from external to internal
Context influences our attitudes and behaviors. For everything else being the same, our experience can be different under different contexts.
Most of the time, our experience of context is that of outside-in, something that is not within our control. We see circumstances as happening to us.
What we don’t realize is that most of it is created by us. It is rather inside-out. We are creating our own context and this context is built in language.
Context creates conditions for autonomy and mastery
Autonomy and mastery are two major factors that drive engagement. And context is a key enabler for both.
When leaders delve less in content and more in context, it gives teams and individuals the wiggle room to navigate on their own and in the process get more access to conditions that enable autonomy and mastery.
Instead of creating rules for every little eventuality aka content, context can act as an overarching theme that can guide those actions thus letting people be more autonomous.
Context improves decision making and problem solving
You cannot understand another’s context by being limited to your own views. In order to get context you have to understand other points of view and other perspectives not yet considered. It forces us to look beyond what is normal and comfortable for us.
In order to understand, change, expand, and improve context, you have to engage in dialogue and discussion, which is different from issuing decrees that come from one person who is supposed to know it all.
Context can make us look for the right question instead of looking for the right answer. Examining context can force us to look closely at hidden underlying assumptions. It forces us to take a different perspective.
Here’s how Wiley Souba puts it,
Often, we cannot change the content of our lives, But while we can’t do much about what we know, we can alter the way we know it. We have the freedom to alter the way we distinguish the situations that occur in our lives; we can shift the context.
Content is always observed within a linguistic context, one created by distinctions. Only by means of language can you and I lead ourselves, each and every day, to become the wiser, more enlightened, and more evolved human beings that we are intended to become.
– Wiley Souba in The Being of Leadership 
Leaders, who are masters at creating the right contexts, know that language is constitutive and can actively shape the meaning of a given situation.
The next time we find ourselves in a sticky leadership situation or when considering a rollout of a new, tough initiative, instead of charging in headlong and engaging with the contents of the situation, perhaps we should consider what the context is and how we can leverage that.
Antoine De Saint-Exupery said it best:
If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders.Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
Context doesn't come naturally to leaders. In fact, it's the opposite. The natural tendency is to delve in content aka control. I explore this problem in Tyranny of Content- Why leaders keep ignoring context.
An important tool in changing context is effective use of language. But most leaders are unaware of these hidden dimensions of language. I take a deep dive into these nuances of language in Leadership Communication- The Hidden Role of Language.
Footnotes & References
- Reframing The Art of Framing by Gail Fairhurst.
- Robert Bethune as cited in A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan & Mark Barden.
- Bringing Managers Back to Work by Yves Moriex, Boston Consulting Group.
- Six Simple Rules by Yves Morieux & Peter Tollman.
- Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.
- Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz & Kenneth Sharpe.
- Power vs Force by David Hawkins.
- The Reinvention Roller Coaster by Tracy Goss, Richard Pascale, and Anthony Athos.
- The Being of Leadership by Wiley Souba.
- No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer.