Leadership: Position or Process?

Heartland Leadership Initiative on October 30, 2020

Leadership is an active, living process. It is rooted in character, forged by experience and communicated by example.  – John Baldoni

If someone approached you on the street today and asked you to define leadership, what would you say?  I know for me, this has been a prevailing question that I have been working out for quite some time.  We have seminars, retreats, and infinite literature on what it means to exhibit leadership, what it takes to cultivate leadership qualities, and how to stimulate leadership in our communities.  Despite these massive attempts to define leadership and train leaders, studies show that confidence in leadership as well as security in one’s own ability to lead, is declining not rising.  Why? The contributing factors are numerous; however, one predominant factor is whether we view leadership as a position rather than as a process.

If we focus on the sheer amount of information available it is easy to feel like we might never know enough to lead well, and that we are always missing some key component needed to take effective action.  We find ourselves striving to find the right mentor, book or organization to fill the gap.  Yet in the recesses of our minds we are asking, “What is enough?”, “Who is the right expert?” or “How do we know we have arrived?”   In addition, post-modern culture’s definition of leadership being a box of traits needed to be acquired to effectively influence others adds pressure to merely possess traits in order to be qualified to be promoted, have a more elaborate title, and live an exemplary life. This cultural fixation with leadership might even be viewed as a means of separating classes of people: those who exhibit the capacity to lead and those who don’t.  Once again, another question can arise, “Are we even meant to be a leader?”  What if we could put all that worrying to rest and channel that powerful creative energy to applying a consistent process to the challenges right in front of us, trusting that in the process we are becoming the leader we were created to be?

It is time to return to the roots of where leadership originated and embrace its true nature. From the book Aspire by Kevin Hall, we find that the word leader is Indo-European, and that it is derived from two words. The first part—“lea”— means path, and the second part—“der”—means finder. Before our post-modern culture turned leadership into a 1.6 billion dollar industry, leadership was simply modeled after ancient hunting parties. 

As written in Aspire:

“Those who become the leaders see the sign of the game and stop to listen. They pause to catch their breath and get on their hands and knees to recognize the clues. They see the hoof marks. They are the ones with the best hearing who put their ears to the ground and listen to where the game is. They are the ones who touch the ground and can tell which direction the animal is traveling. In olden times, finding the true path of the game was life sustaining.”

“Being a leader means finding the path, but before you can help someone else find their path, you must know yours.”

As in the olden days, the world is yearning for good leaders — those who can see the signs, stop and listen, pause to take deep breaths, and get down on their knees to examine and process, and are committed to finding answers– Leadership is and will continue to play a crucial role in sustaining life in today’s homes, organizations, local communities and society at large.  Leadership is a life-sustaining skill that is available to everyone with the courage and humility to remain in a process of continually reading the signs, making decisions, and not giving up.

So if leadership truly is a process, a progressive course forward towards any object, place or result (Webster’s 1828 dictionary), what are some key aspects of an effective leadership process? Today we are going to focus on three: Believing, Beginning, and the consistency needed to Become.

The first aspect to consider when viewing leadership as a process, is belief.  Effective leadership does not begin with a behavior change, but with a mindset change.  This may seem simple enough, yet it runs counter-intuitive to our natural tendency to “do something” before truly taking the time to think.  After all, Nike did not make millions on, “Just think it!”

Why is this a problem? When we act without taking time to thoroughly think, our decisions are often governed by emotions. These emotions might include fear: fear of falling behind, fear of not meeting expectations, fear of looking foolish, fear of losing market share, fear of … and the list could go on.  This reaction could also be governed by frustration, exhaustion, anxiousness, a false sense of urgency, over-extension and stress, or pride. These emotions can short circuit our ability to respond vs. react.  It forces us to create solutions from a place of protection vs. a place of possibility, therefore limiting the extent of our effectiveness.  We dismiss ideas quickly.  Our focus on what can’t work surpasses our hope of experiencing even greater success once we learn what is necessary to pass victoriously through the current circumstance.  We see failure as a hitching post vs. a guide post.

Look around to any form of media and we can witness this first hand.  It has become increasingly evident and accepted as normal to air our dirty laundry, commiserate, and complain to each other and about each other, blame others and shirk responsibility. On the contrary, leaders discipline their minds by living by beliefs vs. emotions.  They take seriously the “lost fuel” of an undisciplined mind and take the time necessary to step back and identify root beliefs and values, read the signs and clues, and gather wisdom by asking others good questions.

The second aspect of an effective leadership process is the ability to just begin.  When we do not get caught up in our emotions or negative beliefs, we have the freedom to recognize that very rarely are we able to act with “all” the information.  In our technologically driven, global society, things are changing often instantaneously.  The amount of information is endless!  These factors can paralyze us in our tracks so that we never fully commit to take action.  To lead well, we must overcome this challenge by resolving to just begin.  How do we “Just Begin”?  We start with the power of questions to identify a clear objective or problem to be solved.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.  It is all too easy to go into leadership development without a real clear idea of why we are beginning the journey.  Perhaps we have a very vague goal of, “Becoming a better leader so that I can position myself for opportunities in the future.” .  Without more specific context of what those opportunities we desire are, we might assume that one size fits all and that the same group of skills and style of leadership will work regardless of context. We approach the principles and training materials we encounter as just another tool in our tool belt to save up for future needs.  However, the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve shows that less than 10 % of any information that is read or heard is ever retained more than 48 hours unless it is specifically applied.  If information is readily discussed, applied, and then retaught, retention rate goes up to 90%.

In lieu of this data, to effectively embrace a leadership process, individuals and companies have to ask themselves a simple question:  What, precisely am I doing this leader initiative for?  As Stephen Covey would say, “We need to begin with the end in mind.” We need to begin well by taking the time to reflect on what are the real pain points or future desires that we want to change.  Then instead of getting bogged down with the smorgasbord of leadership content, we can laser in on discovering the two or three things we can change in order to make a significant difference in the outcome of that specific challenge.  We can extract the richness of content by filtering it through the clearly defined challenge.  Upon applying our new insights, we experience valuable feedback immediately, something content alone can never give us.

Excitingly, beginning is a terrific start, as it is often ripe with tremendous uncertainty that we have overcome to act.  As referenced in the flywheel analogy by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great, the amount of energy needed to get a heavy stone wheel moving, far exceeds the energy needed to keep it moving.  Therefore, let’s keep it moving!  We become leaders through the consistent (key word!) refining of the circumstances we choose to tackle on the way to our desired outcomes.

For us to truly live in the place of significance, we must get serious about intentionally putting in place structures that give us time for relevant reflection, identify measurements that truly mean something, and an accountability system. Effective leadership is developed by truly honoring that fact that leaders are, in the words of John Maxwell, “not made in a day, but daily” and that “experience is not the greatest teacher, evaluated experience is”. Note that the key here is that you have a structured process, not that there is one “right” structure.  Because we have unique demands on our lives, we must fight the lie of comparing ourselves to others and instead develop our own consistent process, trusting that over time we will learn everything needed. 

Here are some aspects of key structures of evaluation and accountability to consider:

  • Schedule set times and set days for reflecting on the various internal factors, external factors, people, beliefs, motives etc. that are contributing tothe current challenge/desire you are addressing.
  • Schedule “No-No” meetings (where ideas are generated but not evaluated) around challenges you are facing.  Get the right people around the table, even with opposing personalities or ideas, to brainstorm the above aspects of the challenge you are desiring and addressing.
  • Commit to deadlines: Give yourself, teams, etc. specific timeframes to accomplish reflection/research before you turn thinking into an actual next step or action to implement.
  • What one to two people minimum can you be brutally honest with that will be both encouraging yet not lower the expectations of the excellence you were created for?  Determine a schedule to consistently report specific goals, timelines, and check-ins with.  Make sure you not only report if you did or did not accomplish your action step, but what you learned from the process.
  • Make sure that your structure has both short-term and long-term evaluation times.  Focus of these evaluation times could include:
    • Daily (20 minutes): What needs to be done today to get a clear direction or take a next step towards a defined outcome? What is my top 2 priorities?
    • Weekly (1 hour): Did my/our steps this week take us closer or further away for our desired outcome?  Where is more clarity needed?
    • Monthly- (2-3 hours): How close are we to our desired outcomes?  Am I heading in the right direction?  Am I satisfied with the pace of the journey to the outcome?  Where is there conflict or resistance? What are the underlying roots of the resistance?  What are other people thinking?  Who do I need to get insight from?  What competencies do I lack to solve the challenges at hand?
    • Yearly (1-4 days): An even greater big picture evaluation celebrating wins and identifying challenges. Re-evaluating the wholeness and integration of all areas of our lives. (ie. Whole-leadership wheel)

To conclude, ineffective leadership training is rampant in our world.  According to a June 2019 article in Forbes magazine, leadership development is a $366 billion-dollar global industry, $166 billion of which is estimated to be spent in the US alone, with 75% of US companies planning to increase their budgets on leadership in 2020.  Yet despite this massive investment, data from research firm McKinsey and Company shows a startling large majority of all senior managers report that leadership programs don’t deliver the desired results.  How can this be?  We are the most well-read and information rich generation of all times. If the age-old adage, “Leaders are readers”  is true, shouldn’t we have the most extensively equipped leadership of all times. Unfortunately, the consumption of leadership information without transparent, context-specific, consistent and measured application, causes most leadership development programs to fall short of real impact and transformation. In essence, if leadership is approached as a program to complete versus a life-long process to embrace, then we limit ourselves to knowing of leadership without ever becoming a leader.

To set ourselves up to get the most out of our LeadTransformed experience (and any leadership growth opportunities we may be privileged to experience), let’s truly dive into implementing a successful leadership process by beginning well, evaluating our mindsets, and creating structures for relevant reflection, and accountable, meaningful measurements.

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