If there were only one thing that the past three years as a doctoral student in Leadership and Change has taught me about leadership theory, it would be that leadership is contextual. The theories are developed to apply within particular contexts and the various leadership styles that we may read about in popular leadership resources are also highly contextual.
Essentially, this means that we really only know scientifically that leadership theories work within particular contexts. This makes sense; we can’t expect that all theories are experimentally studied within all contexts. One leadership scholar might do a study attempting to apply a particular theory within middle school physical education programs, for example, while another researcher might do a study looking at the same leadership theory as it applies within executive teams at mid-size investment banking firms. These contexts are rather specific and this is really how social science works.
But if we can say that a particular theory works within both of those specific, yet extremely different contexts, this gives us solid evidence that the theory will work well within many other contexts.
Even then, it’s easy to imagine that the precise way theory informs practice will vary depending on context. Middle school physical education teachers and mid-size investment banking executives may have similarities but they also have differences that must be considered when leadership is applied within their contexts.
The point that I would like to make in this discussion is that everything is contextual.
As a leader, I understand my particular industry (or domain or context). As a coach, I understand the coaching conversation but I usually won’t understand a client’s context, certainly not to the extent that they do. I can bring knowledge of coaching, of research and theory, etc. to a coaching conversation and a client can bring their contextual knowledge and experience and together, we can bend and shape possible solutions to fit the particular context. This is what coaches mean when they say that coaching is “co-creative” and this is why one-on-one coaching is so powerful.
But it’s not just about coaching. All of the content that I produce for Salient Moves must be looked at this way. It’s general statements of advice for personal development and it’s up to each consumer of that information to make it work within their particular context.
More still, I think it really pays to be aware throughout our daily lives of when ourselves and others are mentally operating within a particular context and when we are operating at a broader level. Politics can provide all types of examples of this. Broader still, the way we define ourselves as Americans is contextual and we must acknowledge that being American is a much broader concept than any one person’s lived experience.
For myself, I must acknowledge my context as being a straight, white man in America. The lens that this context gives me may and surely does influence the way I see the world. I can keep that truth, set it aside, and just as truthfully acknowledge that I am also part of a broader context: a very large and diverse country wherein there are many, many different types of people. Being part of this system, I also recognize that the lens that THIS context gives me may and surely does influence the way I see the world and choose to act within the world. I may not know about the lived experience of all Americans or know how to solve all American problems, and yet, I still acknowledge the American context as my own.
I can also acknowledge that, in some far away land, my experience may not apply very well within a particular context. Through the context of my life, my lens by itself simply cannot see some of the world’s best ideas.
We all know what we know from experience as the people that we are within the systems that we live. We don’t know everything and that’s okay. Because recognizing different contexts gives us the opportunity to learn from others and consider the possibility that the best option for a particular problem is not one that we, ourselves, could come up with.