Contextual Leadership

by eskokilpi

Information overload and distractions have been understood as something that knowledge management takes care of. The task of knowing what to pay attention to has been tried to solve through corporate guidelines. Companies have also worked on information processes to mine nuggets worth the attention of knowledge workers. None of the approaches have really helped because it is really not about knowledge management, but about leadership, understood very differently than before.

Our attention is a result of the filters we use. These filters can be a mix of habits, media and tools. Increasingly these filters are social. They are the people in our network who we recognize as experts. Our most valuable guides to useful bits of insight are trusted people, people whose activities we can follow to help us advance and make sense.

Leading, then, is not position-based but recognition-based

There can hardly be a follower without a leader. A lot of management research has focused on the leadership attributes of an individual in the hierarchical organization. Leading and following in the traditional corporate sense have seen the leader making people follow him or her through motivation and rewards. The leader also decided who the followers should be.

Leading and following when seen as a two-sided relationship, not as attributes of individuals, follow a very different dynamic. Leading in this new sense is not position-based, but contextual and recognition based.

People, the followers, decide who to follow, why and when. The leader is someone people trust to be at the forefront in the area, the context, which is temporally meaningful for them. People recognize as the leader someone who inspires and enables them in the present. Another difference from traditional management is that because of the diversity of contexts people necessarily link to, there can never be just one “boss”. Thus, an individual always has many leaders as a default state. You might even claim that from the point of view taken here, it is highly problematic if a person only has one leader. It would mean attention blindness as a default state.

We are now at the very beginning of trying to understand leadership in the new contextual, temporal, framework. The relational processes of leading and following should be seen as temporal and responsive, not only on the Internet but also inside companies.

These patterns can be restricting or enabling. Knowledge work is not about acquiring facts or consuming information. It is about associations. Links are more important than information. Knowing in the brain is a set of neural connections that correspond to our patterns of communication. We don’t only connect with people; we link with topics, with contexts. The challenge is to see all the filters and linkages as communication patterns that are either keeping us stuck or open up new possibilities. We need new skills of dynamically connecting to people, topics and places. This is a growing challenge for our tools. Social media tools have developed tremendously on the publishing and sharing side. The next developments need to take place on the sense making side.

Following is at best a process of learning through observing and simulating desired practices. It is about growing the network and filtering at the same time. Leading is doing one’s work in an inviting and transparent way and being reflective. Leading is thus helping people link to information, filter information and to make sense of the world.


Thank you Stephen Downes