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Contextual leadership or can leadership be innovated?

Information overload and distractions have been seen as central management challenges. The task of knowing what to pay attention to has been tried to solve through knowledge management. Companies have also worked on information processes to mine nuggets worth the attention of knowledge workers. None of the approaches have really helped because the missing thing is not knowledge management but leadership. I wrote earlier:

Firms are formed and networked links initiated around ideas and intentions. The onward movement of thinking then occupies the most limited and important thing there is: our focus, our attention. What we focus on is called our attention space.

The attention space is the metaphor of the creative era for the industrial process and even for the corporate office. It is a “place of the mind”. It is an expression of collaborative creativity and cooperative contributions. For an entrepreneur or a startup, what happens there, is the most important real-time measurement of what is actually going on. Additionally, the driving force behind power and change is competition for room in this space. The role of leadership is to influence the things occupying the attention space, the consciousness of the organization.

We know that our attention is a result of the filters we use. Earlier, these filters were a mix of habits and media choices. 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 who we can follow to help us advance, learn and make sense.

There can hardly be a follower without a leader.

A lot of management research has focused on the leadership attributes of an individual. Leading and following in the traditional sense have seen the leader making people follow him through charisma, motivation and rewards. In the corporate world, the leader also decided who the followers should be.

When seen as a symmetric relationship, not as leader or subordinate attributes of individuals, leading and following create a very different dynamic. Leading in this new sense is not position-based, but contextual and recognition-based.

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People, the followers, decide who to follow and why. The leader is someone people trust to be at the forefront in the particular area, the context, which is temporally meaningful for them. People recognize as the leader someone who inspires and empowers 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 leader, one “boss”. Thus, an individual 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 at the very beginning of trying to understand leadership in the new contextual framework. The relational processes of leading and following should be seen as temporal and responsive, not only on the Internet but also inside companies. Relations form patterns that are either restricting or enabling.

Knowledge work is not about acquiring facts or consuming information. It is about associations. Links are even more important than information. Knowing in the brain is a set of neural connections that correspond to our patterns of communication.

When we 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 opening up new possibilities. We need new skills of dynamically connecting to people and topics. This is a growing challenge when fighting information overload and distractions. Social tools have developed tremendously on the publishing, messaging and sharing side. The next developments need to take place on the sense-making side.

We need leadership that helps people to link to enriching information and enables people to make new associations and, most of all, to make sense of the world.

Perhaps we could update our leadership thinking to the Internet era we live in. The world of networks requires different ways of looking at things than the world of hierarchies. And as Max Planck famously said: “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”

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Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again. -André Gide

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