Contextual Intelligence

Accountability Growth mindset Personal leadership


Key Point: Contextual Intelligence is as important as IQ, Emotional Intelligence and other aspects of intelligence that help us develop our whole selves. To quote a recent HBR blog:

“Context matters… There is nothing wrong with the analytic tools we have at our disposal, but their application requires careful thought. It requires contextual intelligence: The ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to an environment different from the one in which it was developed.” 

I just read a wonderful piece of fiction by the acclaimed Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami. In his new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, he reinforces this notion of context, by referring to a famous photo taken by a photographer for a national US newspaper in the 90’s. It was captured during a winter morning in Shinjuku Station, Tokyo, where 3.5 million people pass through daily. Murakami scribes in his book, “as if by agreement, all the commuters were gazing downward, their expressions strained, and unhappy, looking more like lifeless fish packed in a can, than people. The photo in the American paper quipped, ‘Japan may be affluent, but most Japanese look like this, heads downcast, and unhappy looking.’”

The irony of this photo, is that daily Japanese railway commuters have to seriously concentrate and look downward to keep from stepping on the person in front of them (heads down). If one looses a shoe during the crushing commute, there is no going back. You physically can’t retrieve it and literally spend the rest of the day with one shoe. Looking downward and lifeless has nothing to do with Japanese disposition. But without applying contextual intelligence, ignorance might win out. 

Character Moves: 

  1. Developing contextual intelligence is about developing your ability to be inclusive. When we learn to be highly inclusive, we learn to search for context in understanding people and situation. The lack of context means you likely filter everything through the lens of your personal view. Your worldview is only one. It is important to look through many lenses. 
  2. Develop your capacity for situational leadership. It is related (although not sufficient) for developing contextual intelligence. 
  3. Get out of your insular world so you can appreciate context more. Ideally you can travel the world, but if not, the local Moroccan restaurant, a smudge ceremony, walking in the Gay Pride parade, playing a game of wheel chair basketball, etc, etc, can teach you lot about context. It won’t happen if you aren’t intentional about developing your contextual intelligence. 

Contextual Intelligence in The Triangle, 


One Millennial View: You’re in a debate. You’re winning. You’re confident you’re right… That winning surge envelops you, let the hypothetical confetti fly. Then, as if your audience is sitting with a hidden bear trap, you’re informed of crucial context you overlooked, didn’t know, or didn’t take the time to learn… All you can say is “ooohhhhhhhhhh…” Let the backtracking begin… Is there a worse feeling than that? I think anyone who has been in that situation can understand that we may be in a hurry to make points, grasp concepts, or just “prove we know.” Taking the care to build Context Intelligence feels a whole lot better than that “ohhhhhh…” feeling. 

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis