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  • Writer's pictureGraeme Findlay

People. Relationship or Context?

As a leader, how do you relate to people? Do you connect through Relationships or treat them as Context?

Relationships - You relate to people as unique individuals. You will seek to understand their personalities. You will work out their distinctive attributes, their strengths and their weaknesses. You will value their unique contribution and work on your relationship with them. When you set out to achieve stuff, you will prioritise winning the hearts and minds. You will work hard to get them individually enrolled. 

Context - You relate to people in an impersonal way. Some might even say a de-humanised way. People are part of the system. They need to be controlled and directed en-masse. They are cogs and levers in the giant machine that you oversee. When you set out to achieve stuff, they need to be managed as a collective.

We have been somewhat conditioned to enthusiastically exclaim that as a leader we are a ‘people person’ and therefore identify ourselves with Relationships. Context sounds brutal – something from a management textbook from the industrial revolution!

The truth of the matter is that we do both and that treating people as part of the system is an essential part of being a leader. Don’t believe me? Just click on your document management system icon and go to procedures. Procedures exist to standardise human input – no room for the individual here. What about the safety rules that you impose – expectations set for the masses. Maybe you want to revisit the last re-structure where you sat with the rest of leadership team for days, drawing and redrawing organisation charts from a ‘clean sheet’.

At least we have HR. They will be all about relationships won’t they? Or will they? We find standardised pay grades, position descriptions, competency frameworks, communication plans and engagement strategies, all completely devoid of relationship. “Because of my son’s schooling commitments, it suits me better to be paid on the second Tuesday of the month rather than last Friday”. “Sorry, here’s the policy…”

In 1958, Martin Buber summed it up beautifully when he defined the different world-view that we have when we engage from the perspective of I-thou (Relationship) or from the perspective of I-it (Context). And we make our choice in the first words we say and it set the path of the subsequent discussion. As Buber said ““when a primary word is spoken the speaker enters the word and takes his stand in it”.

We have discovered in our research that nearly 60 years later, Buber’s statement still rings true for leadership development. Go to your favourite e-book site and search “leadership”. Select any book and read page 10. By the end of the page you will be able to categorise the entire book to either relationships or context. Very, very few books will cover both, the path is set when “the primary word is spoken”.

We believe that a full leadership development experience requires deep inquiry into both dimensions. And not just by jumping between competing approaches. Our Leadership Differential® program encompasses both dimensions in a way that is integrative. Our meta-model approach creates connection and cohesion that allows for powerful new insights and a path to action.

Stay tuned.


Martin Buber, ‘The I-Thou Theme, Contemporary Psychotherapy, and Psychodrama’, Pastoral Psychology, 9.5 (1958), 57–58.

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