Magazine Article | September 13, 2011

A Question Of Context

Source: Life Science Leader

By John Baldoni

Context is all-important to change leadership.

Leaders operate most effectively when they understand not just the situation (what’s going on now) but also the history (what’s happened before). Context will dictate how the leader can and should respond to any given challenge. That is, there will be times when what happened previously will dictate a response or it will indicate that it is time to do something very different.

We see context come to the fore when organizations face a crisis, particularly when what was done previously is not working any longer. General Motors, for example, never did make the hard decisions about how to manage its operations until it went bankrupt and was rescued by the federal government. By comparison, Apple has faced multiple crises throughout its 30+ year life span, but has found ways to reinvigorate itself with visionary leadership and breakthrough products and services (as well as a $150 million loan from Microsoft in 1997).

The reason that context is so important to change is that it gives clues to how current situations and challenges have arisen as well as how such issues have been dealt with in the past. The leader has the choice of operating as before or breaking the mold.

Since context is essential, leaders can ask three questions to help them get a feel for it. Answers to these questions will help the leader consider next steps.

How does our culture tolerate change? So many initiatives fail because leaders take for granted that they will succeed because they want them to succeed. Nonsense. Saying something is like waving a magic wand. You need to sell the idea by putting it into context, that is, how it will affect individuals and the company.

What are the obstacles facing our initiative? Not every initiative is a positive. Be up front when you are asking people to sacrifice time, money, or autonomy. The first two are straightforward, but the last one gets to the heart of why initiatives fail. Managers fear loss of power and influence and therefore either stonewall or fail to support them.

What can I do to effect a positive outcome? Once you have itemized the obstacles, develop a plan of attack. Enlist the support of your colleagues. Plan to be front and center. You need to think of how you will spend your time and how you will be available to support the efforts of everyone.

It is important to note that while context can give clues as to future direction, it cannot give answers. Sometimes a leader aligns direction with the past; other times they go in a new direction. Current circumstances dictate current responses, and so it is up to the leader to make the tough decision.

Yet context is important because it gives insight into what has gone on before and so what people inside and outside the organization might be expecting. Knowing this in advance helps a leader to frame the message, that is, the same as before or new and different.

Context also gives an indication as to how people may perceive the message, and if it’s new and different, the leader must do spadework to prepare people for the new direction. Announce, yes, but give people voice into the project, and let them digest it. Too often leaders announce initiatives without context, and so they hit people out of the blue. It throws them for a loop, and it is no wonder that they react poorly, and, as a result, initiatives die.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s new book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.