We’ve all heard the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” As I ponder the leadership experiences and conversations I’ve had over the past several weeks, I believe there is a time and a place for this, but we also need to recognize there are other things at play. As leaders, we need to be deeply aware of our context and also aware of the time and place to challenge the status quo, potentially ending current practices and starting something new.
“Context is everything” is another saying. I lean more toward “Context is everything.” than“When in Rome….” Certainly, one needs to be respectful of the culture when visiting a new place. An example of this is women reporting the news in Muslim countries wearing a hajib in respect for the practices of the culture.
Context in Organizational Culture
Then there’s organizational culture. Early in my corporate career, I learned through experience that there are ways of interacting in the workplace. You need to be aware of the unspoken rules. Those unspoken rules can be practices that have grown over time within the group, or they can be walls that keep new ideas and different people out. In the case of walls that keep others out, the practice needs to change.
Context and Change
Currently, I lead in a growing organization. This means we must end some current practices and start new things. What worked in the past no longer provides the outcomes we need. To make this work we must be aware of our changing context. It is reflected in culture, both spoken and unspoken. This requires breaking down walls in some areas, while honoring the foundations built in the past. As the organization grows, our context changes. We must lead differently, which is seen as an opportunity for some and a challenge for others.
Here are 5 ways awareness of context helps you lead more effectively. Context helps you:
- Understand those around you – When you consider their context, you see the relationship between their actions and the results they seek.
- Communicate more effectively – Speaking in the “language” of the group, whether it is corporate or community, means you will be heard. Learning the language of your context gives you the ability to be heard. (And they will respect you for making the effort to learn their world.)
- Make a bigger impact by understanding the priorities and needs of those you’re working with. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. When you understand their priorities, you come to their side of the challenge they face. You are their ally in overcoming their problems.
- Honor what has come before as you work to grow the organization. The history of the organization is the foundation of what is needed. Building on what has come before will get you much further than disparaging all that the company is built on. Yes, you will need to prune things. But pruning is different than digging up the roots of the plant and throwing it all away.
- Gain buy in for new opportunities – learning the context of the organization, the spoken and unspoken rules and values of the organization helps you understand the value new opportunities can bring. You add new value to what already exists. It’s adding onto an existing house, rather than razing it and building a new one in it’s place.
Where has the leadership context made a difference in how you approached your role? I’d love to hear your stories.