Leadership Lessons: Context > Content
What is "context"?
Context is synonymous with culture. As a leader, I believe the most important thing I can do is consciously create and maintain a culture that is in line with my organization's values. Culture is inherently a nebulous concept and there is no shortage of books, blogs, and podcasts expounding on the crucial role that culture plays in long-term success. When I think about how to deliberately cultivate a values-based culture, I break things down into a few key areas.
Values: The organization’s values must be incorporated into daily decision making processes from hiring, retention, and promotion to strategic decision making. It’s not enough to have identified and posted values (lest we forget that Enron’s core values were communication, respect, integrity and excellence). As a leader, it’s your job to operationalize values through ongoing training and mentorship. For more information on values, check out this Patrick Lencioni article “Make Your Values Mean Something.”
Vision: The organization’s vision must be clear. It’s not enough to have an aspirational vision statement that accompanies your annual report. The vision must be relatable to all of your stakeholders and communicate a clear path forward. For example, I recently wrote a ten-page “glidepath” that clearly articulated all of the accomplishments that I hoped to achieve over the next year. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create an inspiring and compelling vision and then communicate it at every opportunity. Lastly, it’s the leader’s responsibility to ensure that the vision is accomplished through decisions and actions that are aligned with the organization’s values.
People: You can’t be a leader without a team behind you. Ultimately, it’s a leader’s job to create a compelling enough vision that others are inspired to take action. A leader that is focused on doing, managing, and overseeing the work at hand is not able to expend the necessary energy inspiring and aligning others on the team. Leadership is people-centric stuff; it’s inherently amorphous and it’s ever-changing by its nature. A good leader is focused on building a team of individuals with shared values that work together to make an aspirational vision a reality.
In my Q1 Review, I discussed how my distinction between context and content came from my contemplative practices. Here are my thoughts from a few months back:
Focusing on Context not Content: Context focused leadership is a major theme for me. This mental model stems from my contemplative practices. In meditation and nondual practices, you learn not to identify with the ever changing phenomena within awareness but to abide in the awareness itself. How does that relate to leading a company? I am no longer trying to manage and control projects and deliverables (the content of work). Instead, I’m focused on the context of work -- the culture, the individual relationships, the resources, and the training which is the background on which the content of work rests. An organization consists of people, policies, procedures, projects, etc. -- those can be thought of as ornaments. It’s a leader’s job to focus on the latticework where the ornaments are arranged. In other words it is focusing on the background or context in which all the ornaments must hang.
Leaders need to be committed to their values, obsessed with their vision, and devoted to their people. It's your role as a leader to be focused on the background, the context, in which everything happens. That’s what it means to focus on context over content.