A View : Contextual Awareness

The current issue of Harvard Business Review contains an article called Focused Leaders written by Daniel Goleman that is worth reading and reflecting upon. Goleman makes the point that most effective leaders cultivate a “triad of awareness” as the editor’s note describes to include oneself, others, and the greater context. Much has been written about listening to self and others, and the popularity of the course Authentic Leadership Development in the EC is testimony to how interested HBS students are in better listening to self and others. Becoming a better listener with comprehensive skills is a powerful leadership tool that is rarely fully in evidence in my experience. One reason could be that we are so busy communicating, posting, acting and reacting that we miss the greater context Goleman identifies. The greater context are those people, events, trends, and factors that shape the environment in which our more here-and-now or close-and-soon actions, choices and efforts take place.

We often describe the negative consequences of this lack of awareness as being blindsided or experiencing a compound casualty when at the time of occurrence seemingly unrelated multiple errors or events combine to create a particularly pernicious outcome. The opposite usually is called “lucky”. It could be argued that neither extreme is fully true. These outcomes –good or bad- are more often the results of how consistently and effectively we are contextually aware, and more fully under the influence of the leader or person than is generally believed. “Lucky” might really be the result of understanding, shaping and taking advantage of the greater context. It also feels to those aware and skillful enough to do this that “the game slows down” not dissimilar to how great athletes experience their sport. How can a leader or an individual develop and practice good contextual awareness? The setting matters, so let’s pick a new manager or professional that has recently arrived at an unfamiliar enterprise. The first need is to realize contextual awareness is necessary, pay attention, and occasionally reflect. This brief column does not permit a full discussion, but we can think about a few of our favorite devices- frameworks! Getting started could be as simple and powerful as identifying all the individuals or organizations that are most important to your success. The list is likely longer than you first thought and includes colleagues, clients/customers, bosses, subordinates, partners, regulators/legal, suppliers, support staff, and the list goes on. Since personal and professional lives are so intertwined, establishing a similar contextual map for your personal life can be surprisingly insightful and helpful as well. Next for each person or element describe why they are important, what are their needs from you and how you think you are meeting those needs. How confident are you of your understanding? Did you include the totality of messages and not just their direct-to-you comments? How have and are those needs and your assessment of how you are meeting them changing? The next framework is to expand the lens forward six months to build a framework for how you see the contextual group changing and how the needs of this group might change to be sure you are anticipating and shaping the future rather than being a surprised and perhaps unprepared reactor.

A bit more ambitious but powerful and necessary step is to think about the contextual map for each of your points of interaction. This helps develop an understanding of what forces shape their world to help you better understand them and their reaction to and evolving needs from you. The big idea is to make this contextual awareness an ongoing part of your toolkit so as your responsibilities and influence grow you can shape the environment, anticipate the future and be able to surprise, delight and help your friends and colleagues by seemingly being able to see around corners and dodge bullets. The game really can slow down if played with a contextual mindset.