The Priests come in soon, but first you’ve got to get this point.

Here is the thing about you as a leader. You are not rational.

And here is the thing about those that follow you. Neither are they.

Logic is not what human beings use to decide. Values are not what human beings use to decide. Beliefs are not what human beings use to decide.

Context is what human beings use to decide. Period. More accurately said, your context decides for you.

Context is an invisible and taken-for-granted set of views that shape, moment-to-moment, how any given situation “shows up” for you such that you act the way you act and say the things you say.

Context is preconscious.

It makes sense for you to say sorry and forgive people more often, doesn’t it? Yet you don’t. You say you value honesty – and yet you’ll lie when the conditions are right. You preach your belief in collaboration – yet you protect information and quietly compete with others around the table.

Almost every book, seminar, and parable for leadership, change management, and strategic planning treats people as rational actors…using rational thought…to make rational decisions. How’s that been working out so far?

Not only are you not rational, you are predictably irrational. You are a slave to the context of any given situation. You’re responses are dominated by an invisible set of views that dictate your actions at a preconscious level. Do you think that reading a book will make a real difference against something that foundational?

It’s 1973 at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Sixty-seven future priests take part in an experiment (Darley & Batson, 1973) that would reveal the paradox and absurdity of the human condition. Ultimately, the experiment would reveal that the context for any given situation trumps all other decision-making factors.

The 67 seminarians were asked to prepare a short talk on a topic from the Bible, many of them specifically on the Good Samaritan. The talk would be delivered in another building, a short walk across the courtyard. When they are finished preparing, they were told either, a) they had time to spare or b) they were late for their appointment. As they walked through the courtyard to deliver the talk, each of them encountered a man in distress (an actor) asking for help. The number of seminarians that stopped and assisted him reveal a potent lessons for humanity and for all leadership.

The three key factors that could influence the soon-to-be priests’ decision to help or not help are:

  1. their motives for being a priest in the first place
  2. the theme of their prepared talk
  3. the time they have to get to the other building.

Of these factors the one that made the most impact was the third one, whether or not they were late.

Context Trumps all Leadership Factors

The only thing that really mattered was whether the student was in a rush. Of those that were told they were late, only 10% stopped to help. Of the group who knew they weren’t late, only 63% stopped. The power of this context is a staggering revelation. In the seminarians case, the context of “being in trouble” consistently trumped their life’s purpose. They were actively beginning a career defined by “being of service” AND they’d just prepared a talk on the Good Samaritan, a parable that illustrates the very same human vice the seminarians fell victim to. In some cases seminarians literally stepped over the man in distress exactly as written in the Good Samaritan parable they were about to speak on.

The lessons for leadership are this: start dealing with your blindspot and get access to the preconscious factors that shape and determine how you will act in EVERY situation. Without a powerful access to your own context all other leadership learning is pretty much playing house. In the heat of battle it will always be your context that decides for you.

If you don’t uncover your context – it will continue to use you like a rented mule…like it’s doing right now.

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