Misleading Conduct # 1: Not Providing Context

In a recent post, Ian Sampson identified 21 examples of poor leadership which he described as “Misleading conduct”.  Over the coming months he will dive into these examples in more detail commencing today with the issue of not providing context for staff.

By Ian Sampson

You may have heard of the old story of the two men working as stonemasons on an English cathedral. One saw his job as laying stones, the other saw himself as playing a part in creating  a timeless monument to the glory of God.

So remind me again, why am I doing this?
So remind me again, why am I doing this?

The moral of the story is that two very different contexts informed these views – the assumption being that the bigger context will tend to promote  better work in every sense of the word: more skill, better productivity, more  creative problem solving and so on.

A friend who was the CEO of an international mining company based in London followed this to the letter. He led his business with the explicit idea that “context is everything”. By that he meant we live, work and react to situations within the context we carry inside our heads for what is going on for us and around us. If it is a small context we will act small. If it is a big, dynamic, exciting or threatening context we will respond accordingly. His advice to the people he led was that “if we change the context and make it bigger we can change the sense of what is possible”.

Leaders have access to perspectives, information, contacts, and intelligence that very few, if any, others in their organisations have. The people they lead will have access to different information from themselves. Those being led will be trying to align their information with what they guess is their leader’s information so that things can move forward in a coordinated way.

Misleaders practising this form of misconduct give little or no context. Sometimes they inadvertently or deliberately misrepresent the context they want their people to operate in. Their misconduct in inadequately or insufficiently creating the context is reprehensible, particularly if it is carried out with the mindset of seeking to control the situation. Invariably people will recognise incomplete contextual information as a reflection on the leadership: “How can they do and say this to us and think they are getting away with it?” will be the response.

The other practice that goes hand-in-hand with this is to give context to “them down there” by remote means. We have the most advanced tools for sharing information today. All of these need to be employed appropriately, always remembering that the best form of communications is that which floods the system with high quality information, as soon as practical, in a series of personally managed cascades from every leader to their group.

Misleaders don’t intentionally keep their people in the dark about what is going on in the outside world. They just don’t seem to think it is important enough against all the other things that are occupying them at the time. Misleaders keep their knowledge of context all or partly to themselves. And they certainly don’t see it as valuable or important to share it (or learn from) their so-called “Leadership Team”.

 All of the information, wisdom, insight, understanding, knowledge, data, perspectives, intelligence etc. present in an organisation makes for a shared context. It is not just that which lies in the top leader’s head. Of course there will always be matters leaders can’t share: it is not appropriate, commercially sensitive, personal, etc. But the leadership should always ask “what can’t I share?” If the leaders are very clear about what is proscribed and then share everything else, they create a far more productive, trusting, responsive environment than if they work from “what do I (begrudgingly) have to share?” viewpoint.

The leader’s job is to bring all the business intelligence they can gather to bear on the context that their organisation faces. It will change from moment to moment. Good leaders will get satisfaction not from being the fount of all wisdom but by coordinating, helping to analyse, acknowledging the efforts of others and bringing their own insights. And then, either as overall leader or in concert with the leadership team, the leader’s job is to help others within the organisation and  in the external environment understand and appreciate the context as they see it. Who knows, they might even learn some more in the process of doing this and get the context even clearer!

Remember, leaders who create big contexts and keep  them alive with wide ranging, up to the minute advice as to the changes in context will tend to get the best outcomes from the work of the people they lead and represent!

About the author: Ian Sampson is a Cause and Effective Associate. He is a Strategic Advisor to Boards and an Executive Coach. Ian can be contacted here.

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