Context and Culture

To understand a leader’s context, it’s helpful to ask some very basic questions. First, what are they listening for? The way we listen is the structure through which we interpret the world. Regardless of who we are, we all listen for certain possibilities, and filter everything we see and hear accordingly.

To understand leaders, you must first understand their context. With some, the context is obvious. They make it clear what they’re listening for, and what actions will be most meaningful in service to their desired outcome. With other leaders, the context requires a deeper understanding.

Let’s draw an analogy from the fine arts.

19th century genre paintings tell the story of a specific moment in time, in a specific location in the world. The imagery is representational. We can tell exactly what’s being depicted. There may be symbolism that challenges us, or some clever subtext (a story within the story) that adds intrigue to the painting, but generally speaking, we understand the artist’s intention. We know what he or she is listening for, what actions they felt had the most impact, and what the desired intention would be.

Now, compare that to 20th century abstract expressionism. To understand what the artist was ‘listening for,’ we must understand the context. During the period leading up to World War II, modern artists fled Europe and the onslaught of the Nazis for safe haven in the United States. The art produced in New York by both European and American artists in the 1940s was in direct response to this global upheaval. Artists were ‘listening for’ ways to depict the chaos and horror of the war, in ways that would profoundly impact our culture, and shock our aesthetic sensibilities. The act, or process of painting and the struggle it depicted became more important than the object itself.

To understand any period of art, or any artist within any period, it’s helpful to understand the context in which they worked. The same is true of leaders.

But, just as it’s important to understand the leader’s context, it is also important for the leader to understand the organizational context. What are customers listening for? What are employees listening for? What are the realities under which they’re operating? What beliefs are guiding their behaviors?

Contextual Leadership requires an ongoing understanding of the business context, and the ability to adjust to evolving trends. It requires leaders to respond appropriately by demonstrating awareness of, and appreciation for the unmet needs of both customers and employees, before those needs become urgent.

Just as breakthrough artists see and respond to the unmet needs of its key stakeholder (critics, collectors, audiences), so too do transformational leaders respond to the unmet needs of their key stakeholders (customers, employees, shareholders, etc.)

Understanding context makes us better listener, better leaders, and better consumers of culture.