Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems at first glance. There is always a rest of the story. The context is larger than the event itself.
“The first to put forth his case seems right, until someone else steps forward and cross-examines him.” Proverbs 18:17 (NIV)
One of the leadership principles I teach is that everything happens in a larger context. No single event can be separated from the circumstances that preceded it or the environment in which it happened. Leaders must be able to rise above the fray and take a 360-degree look at the situation before deciding what to do next.
Such is the difference between reacting and responding.
Reacting is a passionate, thoughtless reflex driven by the unconscious mind in extreme states. Most often, reacting is fear induced, but it can well up from a sense of euphoria or joy.
Responding is a function of the conscious mental processing driven by our brain’s analytical and rational executive center. Responding is more dispassionate, requiring some emotional distance from the event.
It’s a tough balance. Leadership lives at the intersection of the two.
Leaders have to be the cross-examiner to get to the true facts in context as they seek first to understand before taking action. They also must be sensitive to the emotional temperature of those involved, including their own.
Seeking context requires extensive questioning beyond the obvious, because the solutions often are found on the fringes and beneath the surface of the event itself.
Take the recent St. Louis County grand jury investigation of police officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of Ferguson, MO, teenager Michael Brown. The grand jury limited its investigation to the event itself and information relating directly to it. However, the national question is broader and goes to the context of policing, training, perceptions of white men about black men, and vice versa, laws allowing deadly force by police officers, distribution of population by race, parenting, on going racial mistrust and misunderstanding, and on and on.
In the larger context, both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson are victims of a larger context, a systemic issue that is at the heart of the event.
Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones discuss contextual leadership in their book, Why Should Anyone Be Led by YOU? They state:
“(L)eaders are not passive recipients of the context . . . they work with their followers to socially construct an alternative reality. This capacity is what differentiates those who merely react to situations from those who have the capacity to transform them,” (2006, 89).
Who will be those transformative leaders?
Who will step above the fray instead of wallowing in it?
Who will contribute to the healing instead of further inflaming the wounds?
Who will seek to understand and help us to understand more completely?
Who will help us construct the alternative reality?