Contextual Intelligence: A String in the Labyrinth

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Contextual Intelligence: a String in the Labyrinth

This week’s interim blog marks the posting of the Introduction to The New Ecology of Leadership as an excerpt.  What follows below is an extract from the introduction that identifies seven rewards for reading the book:

Changing a legacy computing system is a scary affair; even rearranging an office filing system can be a challenge. Adopting a new mental model can be still more daunting. However, this is the essence of teaching and learning. It’s easiest when you are young and your models are unformed; then the process seems natural. As we age and our experience becomes fixed in the form of habits, learning becomes more difficult. If our habits are strong and have fueled a sense of competence and power, then learning can feel disruptive, threatening, and downright subversive! Changing habits takes a lot of commitment, persistence, and practice. So why should you invest your time and energy in reading this book? The cause is a worthy one, and the rewards are huge, even life changing perhaps. Here they are:

1. Reading the book will hone your contextual intelligence—the practical wisdom that allows you to understand the types and dimensions of context and how to frame them. For a context is not just a hard, unchangeable thing “out there”; it is also very much a product of how we make sense of the world “in here.” Thus, we can often alter a context by changing how we name and frame a situation, and this book helps you do that.

2. The purpose of understanding contexts and their importance is to enable you, in your roles as both manager and leader, to design, evoke, and even control some of them and anticipate others so that you can either counter or, at the very least, prepare for them. The ability to design, evoke, control, anticipate, and counter contexts may be the most powerful skill that you have. You can use it to find and focus the behaviors that produce the results needed by the organization, its stakeholders, and the community and society at large. I call this ability the architecture of choice.

3. This book will show you how and why organizations and their internal contexts change. It turns out that stability and change, far from being opposites, are inextricably bound up with each other. They are complements. You can’t have one without the other. It is our failure to appreciate this subtle relationship that accounts for the fact that we are continually surprised by crises of all kinds and that the world often appears to be more chaotic than it really is. I will give you a new way of looking at this relationship using an ecological perspective.

4. You will be able to appreciate both the complexity and simplicity of innovation by understanding not only why organizations grow with such effortless ease at some stages of their lives but also why, in the longer term, nothing fails like success. You will see how organizations develop from communities of trust, grow through the application of logic, and mature in power. You will comprehend why powerful organizations decline as they age and how their strengths become weaknesses in changing contexts, for the trappings of success and the contexts it creates can inhibit learning, and the resulting decline can be both difficult to sense and intractable to manage.

5. The ecological approach suggests, however, that there is a “sweet spot” in space and time, a “zone” where an organization can dwell for an extended period through a process of continual learning and renewal. The length of this period depends on many factors, but the key issue of concern here is the ability of both leaders and managers to be effective architects of choice, designing contexts with the optimal combinations of passion, reason, and power. When this happens, resources flow to the right places in the system almost without direction.

6. The ecological perspective will help you understand relationships. For we are constantly engaged in assessing the situations we are in, gauging how we feel about them, looking for systems of cause and effect, and trying to understand the power dynamics present. Whenever we deal with people, we are always thinking in contexts of emotion, reason, and power.

7. Finally, The New Ecology of Leadership will help you ask better questions and tell more compelling stories. If, as suggested at the beginning of the chapter, this book helps you to find your special management “power,” then the questions you ask and the stories you tell will be about you. The resulting understanding of your aptitudes and passions will, given the right opportunities, guide you for the rest of your life.

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