Changing context through language is a powerful tool of leadership. And yet, leaders continue to underutilize it. They are focused on control and end up tangled in the content of their situations.
Leaders don't focus on context either due to lack of awareness or just plain bad habits. Being more aware of these tendencies is a solid first step towards using context more powerfully.
Why context matters
Business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action. Leaders have to see a context for change or create one.
– Ronald Heifetz & Donald Laurie in Harvard Business Review 
Einstein once said, "if I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution."
He was talking about context.
A core skill that differentiates extraordinary leaders and multiplies their effectiveness is their ability to shift a team’s perspective on a particular challenge thus changing ensuing actions and behavior.
They engineer that shift by using language to change the context within which a that challenge is occurring.
Context is the background against which people are standing and that determines their perceptions of reality. This background determines what they see as possible and achievable. They draw their identity and formulate their thinking and attitudes from it.
[Leadership] is about intervening in the context so as to produce a profound alteration. Leaders … create a shift in context that automatically alters the content.
– Robert Hargrove in Masterful Coaching 
As leaders, context is a powerful tool to effect change, motivate different behavior, and create new possibilities.
Most logical option given how it looks
The reason why people are being and acting a certain way is because of how the situation occurs to them. Often, it is not because of lack of information, competence, or intelligence. They are acting in the most logical and natural way given how the situation looks to them.
This is what Patricia Werhane call positionally objective.
Position-dependency defines the way in which the object appears “from a delineated somewhere.” This “delineated somewhere,” however, is positionally objective.
That is, any person in that position will make similar observations.
– Patricia Werhane in Systems Thinking & Moral Imagination 
The leader’s objective then is to change that “delineated somewhere”, so that they can make different observations and come to different conclusions and resulting actions, leading to different results. That's where changing the context is an opportunity for leaders.
Why leaders delve in content rather than context
If changing context through language is powerful, why is it that leaders continue to delve in content, which teams are already good at, instead of trying to understand and change the context within which a situation shows up?
Our natural inclination is to delve into the content ourselves. While there is a place for content and it is equally important, why is it that we tend to continue delving in content even when it’s not working?
One reason is what Reynolds and Houlder call ‘Tyranny of the Tangible’. Content tends to be more tangible, in-your-face and accessible than context.
It's human nature to prefer working with the tangible, things we can specify and monitor, and when something is not tangible, we will do our best to make it so. When we know what to do and can easily see and measure our progress, we feel in control and this makes us feel good.
— Reynolds, Houlder, Goddard, Lewis 
Easier to “get your head around”
We already have mental models about them. But it is those very same mental models that are causing us to not see. This is also called “contextual blindness”; we are blind to the other possibilities.
Paradoxically, while it is easier to delve in content, it's equally hard to directly change the content itself, the so-called “facts of the situation”, the elements of the situation that appear as immutable to us. Changing the context through language is one way to loosen the grip of constraints and facts and bring to light previously invisible aspects of a situation .
Discomfort with questions and staying in the unknown
Stepping back from the thick of action invariably involves asking different and difficult questions. We might have to admit that the answer is not obvious and that we do not have all the answers. This is obviously uncomfortable given all of us came up through educational systems in which knowing all the answers was the way to get ahead.
The need to have all the answers beforehand
There is this perception that as leaders we need to have all the answers. Thus we keep going back to the content that we are familiar and comfortable with instead of grappling with the unknown and unfamiliar which might in fact give a different context with different possibilities and potential solutions.
Rather than fulfilling the expectation that they will provide answers, leaders have to ask tough questions.
– Ronald Heifetz & Donald Laurie in Harvard Business Review 
Delving in context means you are not sure about the answer. It means being open to other possibilities. It means admitting that not everything is already known and appearing vulnerable. And this is not easy for a lot of leaders who might have built their leadership on looking and “seeming” strong and all-knowing.
It’s familiar and comfortable
Typically we are familiar with content and as a result it feels comfortable. We feel competent when we do something familiar even as doing the competent action might be leading to substandard overall results and behavior. Familiarity with content can give us a false sense of mastery over the situation.
Context can be more effortful
It takes more effort to zoom out and try to understand or change the context compared to jumping into action on the content. With content the action required tends to be more obvious making it more easily actionable and accessible. Whereas with context it’s not as obvious and needs to be worked at and grappled with.
For the way to what is near is always the longest and thus the hardest for us humans.
– Martin Heidegger in Discourse on Thinking  
Looking at or changing context is harder because it challenges your existing worldview and mental models which can be uncomfortable. But that is the very reason why there is more opportunity in looking at context because most people would not do it naturally.
Bias towards a right answer
You are more likely to have right answers with content whereas with context there might not be an obvious right answer. We have a bias for getting at a right answer.
Content can make the situation less complex and less nuanced than it actually is. By zooming out and looking at the context you are potentially making it more complex by adding new views and new variables. You are more likely to run into polarities and paradoxes when delving in context. So if you are looking for an answer and the right one at that, you tend not to focus on the context.
Context can be uncomfortable
Changing the context invariably involves questioning our hidden assumptions, questioning what we have taken for granted, which is not easy and causes discomfort by definition. It makes you feel unstable especially if your identity is built upon some of those assumptions.
Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there’s no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.
– John Kenneth Galbraith 
Context requires you to stay more in questions than in answers which by human nature we do not like. We abhor uncertainty and staying in the unknown.
A bias for action
It is natural for go-getters and high-achievers to have a bias for action and that is one reason that makes them effective. We seem to prefer execution than mull over strategy, preferring to march forward instead of taking a step back and trying to take in a different view.
Stepping back can also be seen as weakness, hesitation, or indecisiveness, and our culture does not allow for such indecision and doubt.
The next time you are in a sticky, seemingly irresolvable situation, check to see if you are giving context enough attention and what you can do to change it. Here are some questions worth asking:
- Am I delving in content or context?
- Am I trying too hard to change the contents of the situation?
- Am I wishing for the content to be different and/or resenting it?
- What can I do to get a larger or a different context?
- How can I change the narrative around the situation?
- Can the issue be seen in a different light, from a different lens?
- What are the key pieces that are driving the story and can other pieces change that story?
As Derrida once said, “if things were simple, word would have gotten around” . It's simple but not easy. But as leaders leading teams in a VUCA world, we cannot afford to ignore context.
You and your team are already living within one. The question is whether it’s by design or by default.
📚 You also get a curated spreadsheet of 100 best articles Harvard Business Review has ever published. Spans 70 years, comes complete with categories and short summaries.
- The Work of Leadership by Ronald Heifetz & Donald Laurie.
- Masterful Coaching by Robert Hargrove.
- Moral Imagination and the Search for Ethical Decision-Making in Management by Patricia Werhane.
- Discourse on Thinking by Martin Heidegger, trans. John Anderson & E Hans Freund.
- The Science of Leading Yourself by Wiley Souba.
- John Kenneth Galbraith cited in Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston.
- The Three Laws of Performance by Steven Zaffron & Dave Logan.
- What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader by Alison Reynolds, Dominic Houlder, Jules Goddard, David Lewis