The process of leadership

The best we can do is find a framework that helps us consider our choices, knowing that there may not be one perfect answer. That way, we can rest a little easier knowing that did the best we could in the circumstances, come what may. - Barak Obama

In this post, I'd like to concentrate on the leadership process. In the context of an organisation, we frequently think of "process" in terms of management. Leaders are inspirational figures, while managers are the ones who get things done. However, this is not the case. Motivation is only one aspect of effective leadership. An effective leader initiates a series of actions that result in a specific outcome or decision. Some leaders find it relatively simple to connect inspiring action and the activities required to produce an outcome.


In my experience, most ordinary leaders are better at encouraging action, generating ideas, or managing activities to achieve results. To be an effective leader, you must be able to do both. To do both effectively, you must have a clear leadership process that your team or organisation can engage in and support. The issues that come to leaders at any level are usually those that cannot be answered elsewhere in the organisation, and as such, there is no right or wrong answer, only a good enough answer. The reality of this situation is neatly articulated by Barak Obama when we write that "one of the first things I discovered as President of the United States was that no decision that landed on my desk had an easy, tidy answer. The black-and-white questions never made it to me — somebody else on my staff would have already answered them."

What constitutes a good leadership process?

This isn't going to be a blog in which I argue that there are three steps to effective leadership. I'm pretty sure the world doesn't work that way. It would be nice if it did, but it doesn't. It's far too fluid, dynamic, and complicated. However, I believe that by focusing on three key questions as you design your process, you can set up a leadership process that can communicate your intent, align your colleagues, and improve decision making. How you respond to these questions should help you add or subtract steps from the leadership process you've outlined.


What will ensure the trustworthiness of my leadership process among the stakeholders involved? It is critical to consider the design of the process to instil confidence in those who must follow you as a leader (this could be your colleagues, peers, line reports, or even Board members). "Trustworthiness is founded on the process (people are more likely to respect a decision if it was arrived at fairly), with legitimacy is largely about the values embodied in the process," writes Mark Carney in Value(s). To answer the question of trust in the leadership process, think about how you will communicate your leadership process, share and disseminate information, who will be present for key discussions, and how you will keep the larger stakeholder group informed. What steps will you take as a leader to establish a process that fosters confidence and trust in you and the decision-making processes you undertake?


Is the procedure appropriate for the task? The way you structure a process has a big impact on its success and trustworthiness. An overly complex process generates work for your team, reducing individuals to paper pushers and undermining confidence in your leadership abilities. I learned early in my career, especially as an enthusiastic and energetic leader, to over-engineer the processes. There are too many meetings, spreadsheets, and checkpoints to keep track of. The intention was good and meant to build trust in me and my leadership process, but the result was a cumbersome, slow-moving process that undermined confidence and created frustration.


To answer this question, one framework from the United States military that I came across has been beneficial to my thinking. METT-T, which stands for mission, enemy, terrain, troops, and time, is the mnemonic. The METT section is concerned with selecting an appropriate process for the leadership challenge you face. When designing an appropriate leadership process, I consider the following:

  • Mission: what is the goal of this process, what do we hope to achieve at the end? Is it necessary to prioritise speed, risk avoidance, and engagement to achieve a successful outcome?

  • Enemy: What are the potential risks to the process, and what actions will mitigate them?

  • Terrain: what is the external environment, and how should we adapt our actions to this external context?

  • Troops: the people involved in the process and what they will bring to the table. Is there anything we're missing? To maintain trust in the process, who do you need to keep informed?

What is the best timeframe for this leadership development process? The final question and the last "T" in the METT-T framework consider how quickly to move through the leadership process to the end objective. The final "T" in the METT-T mnemonic stands for time. A great approach that moves slowly and loses energy is worse than a good enough process that moves quickly and keeps people engaged. In other words, a 75 percent process is preferable to a 99 percent process that is executed too late. Your timeframe is determined by your goal, the nature of the team and individuals within it, and the external environment.


Good process as trial and error

There are no silver bullets for getting the process just right. A good process develops through trial and error. You may try out a series of meetings that seem to work well in your head, but as a communication process, they are ineffective for the team and do not result in increased transparency and trust in the process you envisioned. Alternatively, you could try a process to increase engagement through regular weekly communication, only to discover that most people aren't reading the information, and thus engagement remains low. However, by returning to these three questions regularly, you can give yourself a good chance to diagnose flaws in your leadership process and make adjustments.


The process that we set out for leadership and driving action, which means making decisions, is critical for leaders. How we do it determines how engaged our teams are, how quickly we can move forward, and the quality of our decisions. By thinking about the leadership process you put in place, you ensure how engagement happens and whom, building effective coalitions to put momentum behind an objective and help deliver the end product. Whether as President of the United States or ordinary leaders in more "routine" roles, the leadership process that we establish provides credibility and ensures that the decisions that our teams and we make move us closer to our end goals.