Context, Mindfulness & Relating

The context of people going to work everyday.

Context, Mindfulness and Relational Leadership

Let’s begin with thinking about context, “Why I believe this information is valuable and not just more stuff to think about.” Some people are only “getting on the company bus” every day going through their lives without really paying much attention beyond where to get on or off, not giving or needing from each other much more than a polite hello, and just waiting for the weekend.

But I think that the rest of us want to really live 24/7, continually improve, and connect with others in our teams, organizations and communities. Many of us realize that we need to engage in order to cope in today’s crazy world. In fact, we’re pretty sure we’re not going to be able to go it alone very well. We sense it. We need each other. Our relationships are really important to our “live long and prosper” objectives!


Conditions in Context

You may have heard that many professional people describe our world today with the acronym VUCA. The US government is good at coming up with acronyms. This one arrived after the fall of communism and “the notion of VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, multilateral world which resulted from the end of the Cold War. The acronym itself was not created until the late 1990s, and it was not until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that notion and acronym really took hold” (Lawrence 2013, Kinsinger & Walch, 2012).

I have had the honor and privilege to work with wildland/structural firefighters and law enforcement officers since 2002. Many of those people serve overwhelmed communities and regions on incident management teams (IMT) that respond to wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks and more. My experience working with emergency response organizations has provided the special opportunity of engaging amazing people dedicating their lives to the service of others in need. I admire them. They have a genuine outgoing concern for others that deserves the best of what can be created for their teams and organization’s functioning. They tell us that the VUCA world is reality, and not only that it isn’t going away, in many ways it’s getting worse.

Much of their management and human performance interest has been based upon Taylorism and hierarchies designed to produce efficient command and control. For example, firefighters created the Incident Command System (ICS) in the 1970’s to help them interoperate effectively in these environments. Predictability and the removal of uncertainty is the temporary impact, and often illusion, they strive to produce in complex and ambiguous environments.

“The VUCA Prime [model] was developed by Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future and the author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. Johansen proposes that the best VUCA leaders are characterized by vision, understanding, clarity, and agility – the “flips” to the VUCA model. The VUCA Prime can be seen as the continuum of skills leaders can develop to help make sense of leading in a VUCA world” (Lawrence 2013, p. 6). I wrote about developing vision in a recent post about creating a connection culture. Let’s press on with looking into developing understanding, clarity and agility for a few minutes.



Many emergency responders have studied the writings of Roberts, Weick, Sutcliffe about High Reliability Organizing processes creating mindfulness. “Good management of the unexpected is mindful management…people organize themselves in such a way that they are able to notice the unexpected in the making and halt its development…[or] focus on containing it… [or] focus on resilience and swift restoration of system functioning. By mindful, we also mean that systems strive to maintain an underlying style of mental functioning that formulates increasingly plausible interpretations of the context, the problems that define it, and the remedies it contains” (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2015).

Some firefighters also have Dekker, Woods and Hollnagel on their professional reading lists to learn more about developing and integrating advanced risk competencies through Safety Differently, Just Culture, The New View, and Resilience Engineering.

Through The New View and Resilience Engineering we hope to discover that there are more ways to see and learn than what one initially perceives. Second and third-order learning activities not only look at “how we are learning from failure,” the second-level of maturity (Dekker 2006, p. 220, 2011), but we should also expand upon that idea by appreciating what is best about our approach.

Most of the time people are very successful in creating safety in the midst of uncertainty (Dekker 2006, p. 16). “In a world of finite resources, of irreducible certainty, and of multiple conflicting goals, safety is created through proactive resilient processes rather than through reactive barriers and defenses” (Woods & Hollnagel, 2011, p. 3). There are many more learning opportunities in events where things could have gone very badly but did not because people intervened to protect other people, system processes and products. Their stories of effective adaptations to threats in the environment contain practices worth noting. Since the exact same series of events is unlikely to reoccur, even more important lessons lie in the conditions that enabled people to anticipate, maneuver, adjust, and recombine their resources in resilient ways. Purposefully developing and continually enhancing capacities to try to create those conditions within individuals, teams and organizations are worth the effort to learn from all of our activities, not only when things had bad outcomes.

Like many organizations, the wildland fire community has had a singular way of looking at failure to solve failure. We have used a deficit-based approach to create change.

“…in the error counting paradigm, work on safety comprised protecting the system from unreliable, erratic, and limited human components (or more clearly, protecting the people at the blunt end – in their roles as managers, regulators and consumers of the systems – from unreliable other people at the sharp end – who operate and maintain those systems)” (Woods & Hollnagel, 2011, p. 4)

We have focused our efforts to learn primarily from retrospective investigative reports of failures in which hindsight has had the very durable effect of quickly making paths to error in events very linear and narrow. Fortunately, we are now moving toward a very different, holistic approach to learning from events through the Learning Review and Coordinated Response Protocol.

Ellen Langer wrote, “To treat information as context-free, that is, independent of circumstances, places us at risk for mindless thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. Placing information within context leads to mindfulness” (Langer 1997, 1989).

Mindfulness welcomes new information. It becomes curious about the process used and the environment actors are in, rather than only on the outcome. Both continual scanning and peripheral sight of what is actually happening can increase one’s understanding of the situation and help us change our interpretation of the context we experience. Sharing those perceptions with others we trust and can confide in brings people together in relational experiences primed to generate possibilities and potential joint actions. This inclusive approach often allows the reframing of problems resulting in creative recombination of resources and innovative solutions. Multiple points of view enhance our efforts and how we view the situation together. Mindfulness then develops. (Langer 1989)

New information, a variety of human processes, and multiple points of view lead to creativity and innovation, which contribute to the state of mindfulness. Situations that are novel to the beginner benefit from mindful thinking just like situations novel to the expert. People with a variety of experiences and capabilities can contribute to the multiple insights possible.

Previous planning may fail and even endanger people as the organization rigidly follows the plan in a newly emerging or unexpected situation. Many will operate in “planned continuance,” carried along by a dysfunctional momentum; hoping things will begin to unfold according to what they had expected to see. (Barton and Sutcliffe, 2009)

The research on mindfulness shows that mindful work becomes more absorbing and pleasurable but most of all provides satisfaction. Pleasure and happiness are passive emotions that happen to us while satisfaction involves an active pursuit. Satisfaction results from adapting to a new situation or solving a novel problem. Mindful learning and problem solving are more likely to bring satisfaction and self-motivation. In dynamic states mindfulness develops a new dimension (Langer 1997, Goleman et al 2013, p. 103).


Relational Leadership

There are several straight forward ways to increase human value where people begin to trust each other and share ideas. I believe that we can build upon our successful relational experiences and develop even better coping mechanisms that are collaboratively self-designed through improved dialogue and relational leadership. These human processes might also be co-created for the purpose of altering conditions that influence a team’s functioning in real-time. We can move beyond the problem talk of limiting human factors and move forward into human processes that are co-developed and proven effective through utilization by their creators.

Together we can make sense of our world, make meaning and define clarity for the moment. Why for the moment? Things change! Decisions stop the conversation and silence alternative voices.

“If I make a decision it is a possession. I take pride in it, I tend to defend it and not listen to those who question it. If I make sense, then this is more dynamic, and I listen and I can change it. A decision is something you polish. Sensemaking is a direction for the next period.”

— Paul Gleason

Personal communication (13 Jun 1995). In Karl E. Weick, ‘The Experience of Theorizing: Sensemaking as Topic and Resource’. Quoted in Ken G. Smith (ed.) and Michael A. Hitt (ed), Great Minds in Management: the Theory of Process Development (2005), 398. Weick writes that Gleason explains how leadership needs ‘sensemaking rather than decision making.’ As a highly skilled wildland firefighter he would make sense of an unfolding fire, giving directives that are open to revision at any time, so they can be self-correcting, responsive, with a transparent rationale. By contrast, decision making eats up valuable time with polishing the decision to get it ‘right’ and defending it, and also encourages blind spots. [1]


Relational Leadership is about skillfully participating in communicating more effectively as a process of mutually molding meaning – a process of continuous coordinated action. “Meaning does not reside in the word or in the soul of the speaker or in the soul of the listener. Meaning is the effect of interaction between speaker and listener” (Valentin Voloshinov in Herestead and Gergen, 2013, p. 9). Traditional educational practices focus on content and the transaction between the teacher and the student. Transformational learning happens when people are invited into the process of creating knowledge. “Relational leaders are open to the present moment and to future possibilities, they engage in questioning, provoking, answering, agreeing, objecting dialogue rather than dialogue that finalizes, materializes, explains, and kills casually, that drowns out another’s voice” Cunliffe & Eriksen 2011 in Herestead and Gergen, 2013, p. 11).

We know that small shifts in how we word a question can make a huge difference in how we answer (Schein 2013). Skillful relational leading is a new skill that is required in the VUCA environment as we confront the challenges of creating organizational culture, leading teams, handling change, unlearning, relearning, reducing conflict, grappling with emotions, stimulating creativity, combating indifference, and coaching team members. These challenges all require sensitive, flexible, agile and creative movements in dialogue. Relational leadership bringing people together in productive dialogue is a critical 21st century skill.

Resilience is more than flexibility in an operational sense. Agility in leading dialogue is a new form of resilience that enables us to navigate a dynamic and potentially dangerous VUCA world. “Ambiguity can be countered with agility, the ability to communicate across the organization and to move quickly to apply solutions” (Kinsinger and Walch, 2012). Reading about relational leadership is one thing, practice is required to develop any real skill.

The world becomes what it is for us by virtue of our relationships. We, people, constructed our world of dynamic socio-technical systems. Together we can change them.


Written by David A. Christenson, MA, MSc, Ph.D. Candidate
CEO Christenson & Associates, LLC DBA O4R: Organizing For Resilience



Barton, M.A. and Sutcliffe, K.M. (2009). Overcoming dysfunctional momentum: Organizational safety as a social achievement, Human Relations 62, no. 9: 1327-1356, see 1329.

Dekker, S. W. A. (2006). The field guide to understanding human error, Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, Vermont, USA.

Dekker, S. W. A. (2011). Drift into failure: From hunting broken components to understanding complex systems, Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, Vermont, USA.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making social science matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., and McKee, A. (2013). Primal leadership: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Hersted, L. and Gergen, K. J. (2013). Relational leading: Practices for the dialogically based collaboration, Taos Institute Publications, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, USA.

Kingsinger, P. & Walch, K. (2012 July 9). Living and leading in a VUCA world, Thunderbird University. Retrieved from

Langer, E. (1997). The Power of Mindful Learning, De Capo Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Langer, E. (1989). Mindfulness, De Capo Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Lawrence, K. (2015). Developing leaders in a VUCA environment, University of North Carolina, USA. Retrieved from

McNamee, S. (2010). Research as social construction: Transformative inquiry, Saúde & Transformação Social, Florianópolis, v.1, n.1, p.09-19

Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, California, USA.

Weick, K. E. and Sutcliffe, K. M. (2015). Managing the unexpected: Sustained performance in a complex world, 3rd Edition, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey, USA.

Woods, D. D. and Hollnagel, E. (2011). Prologue: Resilience engineering concepts, to the book Resilience engineering in practice (Ashgate studies in resilience engineering), Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, Vermont, USA.