Context and alignment are everything: Context determines how we think about things, how we see things and how we see each other. It is our unconscious reality – one we create for ourselves or is created for us through marketing and such.
As a result, many, no, most if not all, of us go through our lives in what can only be called fantasy. This is because context is not actual reality. It is simply the way we view reality at a particular point in time. Authentic learning is the process of consciously reflecting upon and adjusting one’s context to fit a new reality. Those who do not adjust are doomed to that fantasy.
Thomas K. Wentz in Transformational Change states it about as simply as it can be when he writes: “You can’t do things differently until you see things differently.” “Contextual blindness,” Wentz later adds, “is oppressive and demoralizing.” Wentz was applying this observation to business management, but I contend that it applies across the board to all personal and organizational settings. How many marriages have been torn apart by couples not sharing a common context for their thinking and behaving together? Is there a family anywhere that can’t relate to that observation somewhere amongst their kin? I doubt it.
Peter Barus, an extremely bright, wise, and articulate acquaintance of mine via the Internet, captured much of this with the following: “…human beings have no direct awareness of what is actually going on in the world around them, whatsoever. Instead our brains construct a kind of virtual-reality model of the environment, organizing the chaos of sensory input according to an arbitrary self-referential logic, simply ignoring whatever doesn’t quite fit, patching the gaps with bits of recorded memory, and we live as if these multi-sensory movies-in-the-head were reality. It is a survival adaptation that works astonishingly well. The brain needs to predict the immediate future well enough to keep you alive in the great outdoors, and it’s pretty good at this. You can go through life without ever waking up from this dream, and things will sort of automatically turn out ok, mostly. At least there will be a sort of continuity that is sufficiently reliable to increase population.”
This façade of reality that we all live with is context. And real context is something we can influence. It can best be described as creating focus and determination – Kennedy’s vision of “a man on the moon in ten years” set a context for the nation. It established focus on what could be, and how to get there, rather than on its improbability.
As we are ending the first decade of the twentieth century, context seems dramatically influential in our world. Are we focused on getting affordable health care for all, on reducing man’s negative impact on our climate, on removing money from undue influence in politics, on establishing an authentic sense of community where we all care for each other – that accepts that we all belong together? Or have we established up front, in a predetermined context, that all of that is unrealistic and impractical?
Do we common folks simply have a different context – a different sense of reality – than our elected leaders? I hope that is what it is. I hope neither of us is ignoring the need to learn and adjust – to grow our reality and refine our context. What else can explain Obama’s departure from what he promised in his campaign? Does he simply see things differently now? And if so, why does he not attempt to share that change with us? Tis a puzzlement.
But context is not all there is to it because, as Wentz observes; “When the context has changed, entirely new content will be created.” That new content can be both invigorating and productive or it can be chaotic and overwhelming. Which it is becomes a matter of the related concept of alignment.
So, if Obama’s context has changed, and he fails to share it convincingly, we are stuck with a predictable chaos, and the nation will stay unaligned. And I have to admit that this is what I feel right now – chaos.
What Kennedy’s statement did was get everyone headed in one direction and fully aligned. Clearly our nation isn’t there at the moment. The opening sentence of George Labovitz and Victor Rosansky’s book, The Power of Alignment, is the following quote from Jim Barksdale, CEO of Netscape: “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing!”
What is Obama’s “main thing?” I do not know and few seem to. He must correct this and soon or the chaos will continue.
So, context, either new or old, absent alignment ends up creating chaos. The role of leadership is to assure a shared context and foster alignment. This component is sorely missing from our recent national leadership on almost any issue. And the context that has been created and fostered by corporate and conservative-leaning leaders – of both parties and the media – has developed and exploited our unconscious reality to the point where the demise of our society is real, if not imminent.
Bob Barkley, counselor in systemic education reform, author, and retired Executive Director of the Ohio Education Association. Worthington, Ohio.