Passion, People or Process – What’s your Leadership Focus?

Everyone has a way of working they prefer – when all things are equal, their default mode if you will. What is not as clear is the degree this default mode changes when under pressure. For leaders, the impact is arguably greater as their behaviour and mode of working affects the wellbeing and effectiveness of their team. Stopping to consider what your default mode might be can unlock opportunities in your team and organisation that could, in fact, help combat the stressful moments when they arise. Likewise, considering how your mode changes when under stress will also help you and your team better cope with these periods and lessen the impact these stresses can have on individuals and team culture.

Whether you lead a small team or large, a project, or an organisation, your leadership practice will likely involve the following 3 domains – People, Purpose and Process. Though it is often seen that process is a managerial function and not a leadership one, the reality is leaders are still in some form of managerial position so will enact and lead the implementation of one or more processes. So how do you recognise which of these domains is your default mode, and how might it show up when you are under stress? Let’s consider these domains further.

  • People – Leaders that are strong in this domain privilege the needs of their team. They consider the support their team needs to deliver on their work and more broadly their wellbeing. They play an active role in checking in, coaching or mentoring as needed, and foster a collaborative and supportive team culture as a core priority.
  • Purpose – Leaders that are strong in this domain privilege the purpose or vision their team is formed to serve. This driving force propels them to encourage their team to deliver their best. They are always thinking about how their team can achieve the purpose or mission of the organisation and value a team that is equally committed to achieving this purpose.
  • Process – Leaders that are strong in this domain privilege the existing and new ways that the work can be delivered. Not just the work, but the processes that people are engaged in its delivery. They appreciate and value that a good process can bring and are open to developing and defining new processes so the team can deliver on its commitments.

These domains are never enacted in isolation. You will enact all three in various ways, however are more likely to enjoy, prefer or are naturally more capable at one of these domains more than the others. Here’s a conceptual way of appreciating the dynamics of these domains in action.

Each domain forms a point in this diagram. To see how this interacts, let’s say that a leader gives themself a score out of 10 for each domain, with 10 representing a very strong enactment of this mode in action. It may go something like this.

Default Leadership odesThis person ranks their people domain as an 8 – they love working with their team, bringing the best out of them and in them, challenging them to excel, providing them support and actively coaching or mentoring them. They then consider their Purpose domain, and also rank themselves an 8 – recognising their strong drive to deliver on their team’s mission and the broader purpose of the organisation. They naturally see how each project and activity contributes or detracts from the purpose. Lastly, they consider their mode toward Process, and score a 6. They are fully competent at utilising multiple processes and indeed know many, but prefers to use a process as a frame and not be prescriptive with it. This is what the domains would look like for these scores.

Mode under stressNow, if the same leader reflected on their mode when under pressure or stress, the scores change. The same leader dropped their people score down to a 5 – not because they cared less, but because they felt they had less time to give to their team and would prefer they are more autonomous and deliver on their commitments. The purpose domain didn’t change much, as it is a core driver for this person, and if anything went up a notch to a 9, perhaps to justify or make sense of the increased stress they felt. Lastly, the process domain increased a little (to a 7) as the leader preferred working with proven methods and processes and it helped make their job easier to deliver outputs. Here’s how it changed.

In this example, you can see that for this person, purpose is a core driver, with the other domains shifting focus or preference under pressure. It is not unreasonable to think that the people this leader interacts with might be negatively impacted on with this change in behaviour, which is all likelihood is an unconscious response to the stress as opposed to a deliberate choice to treat people differently. Similarly, the utilsiation of processes help the leader cope with the stress and is a way they can still lead delivery of outputs from the team. This example shows how this frame can help identify what might shift when you are under pressure, to then help you consider the impacts of these shifts on those you lead and interact with.

John Kotter argued that the central function of management is to provide order and consistency to organisations whereas leadership is to produce change and movement. Thus, management is about seeking order and stability; leadership is about seeking adaptive and constructive change. Both are needed, and Kotter’s argument provides a different way of describing the dynamics of leadership in action, and why things can change under pressure.

A couple of comments to note:

  • This is not a process of self-ridicule. It is simply a way to reflect on your practice with the intent on identifying any domain you may wish to review and adjust
  • This frame works for all individuals, not just those in leadership positions.
  • This is a highly subjective process. For the brave, you could invite feedback from your team from what they observe in your behaviour and hear in your voice to inform what strength of focus you may have in these domains.
  • You can ask for feedback if your reflections lead you to identify one or more practices you want to change in your leadership approach, both in your default mode or when under pressure.

As you come to the end of one year and pause before another, reflecting on your practice can help identify one focus area you would like to work on in 2022. No matter what comes your way, be kind  to yourself and those around you as everyone is doing the best they can with what they know. We are all a work in progress.



A short article on how your brain behaves under stress is here:

1. A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs From Management (pp.3-8, by J. P. Kotter, 1990, New York: Free Press.

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