The Role of Process in Leadership


Joan MacLeod Heminway
Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law

Process. We engage with it every day. It involves dotting the “i” and crossing the “t.” We use processes to determine our missions, visions, strategies, and tactics. It is, in a sense, the lifeblood of organizations. As a result, we (unsurprisingly and accurately) most often associate process with management.

But process plays an important role in leadership, too. Process, properly engaged, can signal, foster, and strengthen leadership. And process poorly engaged can hinder, stymie, or weaken leadership. There is an important reason for this: process and trust are linked, and trust is at the core of leadership. Trust builds followers.

One key to good leadership process is thoughtful, aligned communication. Nan Russell offers five tips on elevating communication to operationalize leadership in an employment context, noting:

 Elevated communication is well-intentioned, selfless, and other-focused. It enables— not inhibits—others. It breaks through the noise and builds trust, which makes employees more engaged, and encourages innovation, productivity, and great work.

Her five tips—getting perspective on what matters to others, increasing dialogue with everyone involved, practicing thoughtful transparency, contributing gratitude, and aligning words and actions—are the foundation for process that transcends management. In an article originally published in the Harvard Business Review in 1990, John Kotter lays a foundation for Russell’s overall point when (in distinguishing management from leadership) he observes that managers communicate to organize, while leaders communicate to align people to an institutional vision.

More specifically, Kotter observes in the article that leadership process involves setting a direction rather than planning and budgeting and focuses on motivating people as opposed to controlling and problem-solving. He notes that “the direction-setting aspect of leadership . . .creates vision and strategies” and that “developing good business direction . . . is a tough, sometimes exhausting process of gathering and analyzing information.” And he avers that “good leaders” engage various processes to motivate people: articulating organizational mission that aligns with the values of the audience; involving the relevant groups of people in decisions about the means of achieving the organizational vision; “providing coaching, feedback, and role-modeling” as a means of supporting those helping to realize the vision; and recognizing and rewarding success. Leadership depends on process.

The net takeaways (and there is much that could be said on this topic) of all this are relatively simple. One can have a promising vision and strategy that emanate from the best of all intentions and ideas. But without engaging a process that includes effectual communication and input from, candid interchanges with, expressions of appreciation for, and buy-in from the relevant affected populations, those worthy intentions may be misinterpreted and those good ideas may die on the vine or not be implemented effectively. A leadership opportunity may be squandered.

In a basic sense, leadership both employs process and is process. Kevin Kruse, a contributor to Forbes, offers that “[l]eadership is a process of social influence, which [sic] maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” As you map out the future for your group or organization, don’t forget the people in it and the processes that will connect your vision and strategies to their passions and contributions. Lead by inspiring and instigating action through effectual process. You’ll have a higher probability of success in achieving your objectives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s