Promoting the Public Interest

The importance of context in weaving the bigger picture with practice

The word ‘context’ stems from the latin word ‘contextus’ which comprise the two words con (‘together’) and texere (‘to weave’).

Figure 1: Contextual Patterning

Context describes the circumstances that form the setting for an event or happening (i.e. a leadership activity).  It helps understanding (in terms of impact). In this sense, we can view context from a systems perspective.  Context is not something that we can directly control but we do need to acknowledge that it is adaptive. Context does, however, have a clear impact on intentions. Leaders influence change in contextual conditions. For this reason, context is a determining factor of whichever complex adaptive system we are exploring.

It is not simply good enough to identify the contexts.  What is also needed is the ability to identify the contextual conditions that either help or hinder the development of public leadership. Leaders encourage collective endeavours and then continuously influence change based on intelligent/evidence-based analysis and argument.  We are unlikely to ever reach an end-goal as context will morph.  The approach of leaders will need to adapt to this.

Networks are now a pervasive feature of leadership at all levels. As our culture has developed, intelligent action and motives have shown the benefits of collaborative rather than competitive behaviours.  Over time, this has become deep-rooted within our culture with an increasing predisposition towards shared values.  This is far from universal.  Although some argue that selfish behaviour is in the minority this only happens automatically if the context is right.  Context is thus all-important in considering leadership.

The key challenge is for senior leaders to create the conditions (the context) in which selfless behaviour is encouraged and rewarded.  Such behaviour is better than setting the diktat from ‘above’ and then putting in place control measures to ensure that ‘their’ objectives are met.  This is regardless as to how they are achieved in some of the more extreme cases of selfish leadership.

Building a Contextual Foundation for Leadership

One benefit of using a realistic evaluation approach is that leaders and leadership adapt and change according to the attributes of the people involved in leading, those who ‘follow’ and internal dynamics. A second is that leadership activities produce complex patterns of outcome, with winners and losers, successes and failures. A third is that the external conditions for leaders and leadership are apt to vary and to change over time, and, sometimes in chaotic and inherently unpredictable ways. The realist is interested in identifying and testing configurations, rather than one-to-one causal relationships. The relatively simple framework relies upon the configuration of context, mechanisms and outcomes (CMO configurations).

Context is now a global phenomenon embracing both national and international cultures. Culture can be considered as part of the global context, defined as “collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another” (Hofstede et al., 2010: 6) although others have suggested a need to move beyond this given the changing global conditions that have emerged (Nakota, 2009).

Interestingly, given the global impact of Covid-19, it is now being suggested that society and business may embark on ‘reverse globalisation’ in which is a reversal of the scale and speed of international business that have all combined to create a system that is much more dependent on what is happening on the other side of the world (Bloom, 2020). The disruption of supply chains and other associated risks have made businesses more cautious and, once more, looking for less risky local suppliers or partners. This is a prime example of an external contextual condition that can have a profound impact on leadership.

NPL identifies three broad types of context

  1. External context (external to the organisation and its networks)
  2. Mediating contexts (those that influence the interaction between the external and internal contexts); and
  3. Internal contexts.


The six external contextual conditions are generally well understood. Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legal and Environmental[1]contextual conditions.


Figure 2: External and Mediating Contexts

Phronesis (practical wisdom) and Place (location) are viewed as mediating contextual conditions.  They are important drivers for intelligent leadership in informing and influencing the practical application of collective leadership.  Two further mediating contexts include the principles (often unwritten) and the paradigm (the ‘way we do things around here’).  These four mediating contexts often seeks to influence a particular pattern, either as a high-level outcome in responding to the P.E.S.T.L.E conditions for the organisation or in mediating between organisations within collective networks.

Public Leadership Contexts
Figure 3: External, Mediating and Internal Contexts

There is a dynamic interaction between the external and internal contexts of collective leadership, mediated as described.  This can be considered as a synergetic association, illustrated in figure 3.  The external (PESTLE) context coexists with, and influences, the six internal contexts.  The six external contexts of collective leadership in the public interest are shown to represent the six outer circles

[1] P.E.S.T.L.E contextual factors influence an organisation from the external environment. It provides a framework to gain insight into the external factors impacting an organisation.



The 8 remaining internal contexts are shown below.  The 13 contextual factors interact with each other.  This creates discernible patterns that has led to the creation of an operational collective leadership model which identifies seven collective leadership values and 30 underpinning collective leadership behaviours.  The model is represented by the COMPASS360 assessment. This is discussed at the end of this section (page 6).

In the meantime, explore the 8 internal contexts for New Public Leadership below.

The role of the core purpose of the organisation, which interacts with the external context, is to take the ‘what questions’ further. The core purpose states the reason for which something is done and its intended effect and takes due account of the underpinning values and the overarching vision. It asks ‘why’ does the organisation exist and ‘who’ will carry it out?

The role of the core purpose of the organisation, which interacts with the external context, is to take the ‘what questions’ further. The core purpose states the reason for which something is done and its intended effect and takes due account of the underpinning values and the overarching vision. It asks ‘why’ does the organisation exist and ‘who’ will carry it out?

The two terms together, ‘problem profiles’ underpin and inform the purpose. An intelligent-led approach to leadership provides the context for understanding the problems, the on-going changes to the patterns and the range of solutions. If a solution is already known it is not necessarily a leadership problem.

The term originates from Middle English through Anglo-Norman French from the original Latin term of ‘populace’, namely people in the plural and ‘considered collectively’. Within a democracy, ‘people’ are described as the primary principals and it is with people that agency exists. There is nothing that we do within our workplace that does not involve relationships.

Closely aligned to the context of people, and in particular, the meaning of agency is that of power, the eighth contextual ‘P’. Many will have agency, but not power. If a person has power, then the ability to reconstruct both agency and structure is present. The literal definition of ‘power’ is considered to represent ‘the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way; to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events and – in terms of governance – is closely related to the notion of legitimacy’. Power will always have a role in determining the success or otherwise of leadership.

The ninth ‘P’ within the context of leadership is one that interacts with the (external) social environment in the same way that purpose interacts with the (external) physical environment: partnership. This is a relatively recent term and describes an association between two or more people as ‘partners’ or the state of being a partner. The third sector and community groups are increasingly recognised as a key element of partnership working as public leaders, although strategic alliances are an increasingly important element of commercial enterprises. The development of partnerships is particularly important as it draws together both agency and structure and is where the ‘battle for power’ is often fought”

The term “Phronesis”originates from Aristotle’s ancient Greek, ϕρόνησις, meaning thought, sense, judgment, practical wisdom and prudence and ϕρονεῖν; to think, to have understanding, to be wise. In modern language it is taken to represent practical understanding; wisdom, prudence; sound judgment. Aristotle has been quoted as saying that ‘all the virtues were forms of phronesis’ (Ferguson, 1958: iii. 30). Interestingly, and in direct comparison, (Parel, 1992: 157) suggests that Machiavelli’s new political philosophy ‘rejects the relevance of the traditional notion of moral virtue and phronesis’. Phronesis – as practical wisdom – thus represents a key element of the collective leadership framework through the development and application of intelligent leadership.

The term ‘place’ is generally taken to mean an open space or senses relating to a particular part or region of space or a physical locality. In terms of ‘place’ as a contextual condition for collective leadership, you can change your place (or space) but it is not necessary to change your purpose. As Shakespeare argued; ‘Though you change your place, you neede not change your Trade’. Phronesis (practical wisdom) and Place can thus be viewed as mediating contextual conditions

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The Selfless Leader