Before You Lead, Audit Your Context

When I first came to Southeastern University as president, our school was two enrollment cycles away from shutting its doors.

Two years prior, it had been a campus swelling with over 3,000 students led by a dynamic and charismatic leader. But after two years with no leadership, Southeastern was down by almost 1,000 students and shrinking still.

Before you can shape your role as a leader, you have to do your job as a listener. The first thing a leader must do in any situation is to listen to the people. However, once you’ve taken the time to listen to the people, the next step is to audit the context. 

While leadership is essential, it also is contextual. Leadership is something that one does with other people at a particular time and in a specific space. At the end of the day, you simply cannot separate leadership from its context. A vision that may bring success to one team, may bring nothing but confusion to another.

It’s true in the world of sports, too. When you hear the word “strike” in baseball, it means the batter is closer to walking away from the plate unsuccessfully. But when a bowler yells, “Strike!” it means he or she has just achieved the best possible result in a single roll of the ball. It’s all about the context. Context drives and transforms meaning. For leaders, context is also the fuel for leadership frameworks. Skilled leaders learn how to read the context in order to discern the capabilities of a team member, the challenges in a situation, or the implications of a strategy.

So what does it mean to audit the context? It means to take the time to not only listen to your people but to understand what factors affect them as well. Auditing the context means understanding the urgent issues that matter to your people and innovating ways to meet those needs. 

As leaders, we must always remember: We are not leading assets; we are leading people. When I began to listen to the people, I began to understand the urgent issues that mattered to them. From auditing the context of the university, I saw what our people were good at, what they didn’t have, and what they needed in order to overcome the challenge at hand.

We did this by asking three simple questions: First, “What are our people’s strengths?” Second, “What are they lacking?”, and third, “What resources, skills and knowledge do they need to succeed?”

After that season of understanding our context, we developed our urgent and innovative frameworks. These leadership frameworks made it clear that what our university needed, to climb out of our enrollment decline, was football and nursing. Now those two things may not seem all that revolutionary. But in the context of SEU—which began as a small Bible teaching school for pastors in Alabama—football and nursing were revolutionary. 

Naturally, there was a lot of resistance to these ideas. But because we began by auditing our context, we were able to meet that resistance head on. Leadership is contextual, and when you take the time to audit the context, the road ahead will be clear.

The context of leadership is also subjective. The way team members feel about their work is as much a part of your leadership responsibilities as is the chart of accounts. Your work culture is as much a reflection of your business’ health as is the physical inventory. A leader who would be truly great must make it his or her business to assess the subjective context every bit as carefully as the objective context. 

We must always remember, we aren’t leading assets, we are leading people. Human beings aren’t chess pieces to be moved callously here and there. Philippians 2:3 reminds us, “Do nothing from selfish or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” Leaders who attempt to manage human assets the same way they manage inventory control will usually find themselves frustrated and unsuccessful, or out of a job. Even worse, they lose focus of the entire purpose God has granted them this opportunity to lead: to honor and display the love of God. 

Why is it, you think, that the human context is almost endlessly shifting? The answer is, because people change – from year to year, day to day, and sometimes even from moment to moment. Their priorities shift, based on life circumstances. Human emotions cycle up and down, depending on what’s going on in their personal, professional, and public lives. Their perceptions alter over time. For all these reasons, the human context is in a constant state of change. So when we recognize our vision relies on the context and the context relies on people, we are innately more flexible and in tune with our teams as leaders.