Leadership as Process

Earlier this month, I published a blog entitled “Leading from the Gut.” In the piece, I referenced work I had written in 1997 for my master’s thesis, a report called “The Group Recognition Theory.” Essentially, I postulated that a group confers true leadership standing on the individual trusted to represent who they are and/or who they wish to be. In other words, much like representative government, members of a group give over part of their individual power and ego expression in order to achieve something greater – ie, the goals the group holds dear. By coming together, the members create a collective ego comprised of a mixture of individual egos that is separate yet inextricably linked to every member.

Whoever functions as leader of this group, in order to influence and engage the whole, must embody the right combination of traits and behaviors the group sees as attractive. Otherwise, the leader exists in name only.

This is not a new concept. Eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized the relationship between leadership and what he called the “General Will” in his work The Social Contract. “I hold then that Sovereignty, being nothing less than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, and that the Sovereign, who is no less than a collective being, cannot be represented except by himself: the power indeed may be transmitted, but not the will.”

Over the years, I’ve seen leaders who by their very nature are “of the group” and naturally successful. I’ve seen leaders who understand the group’s collective ego and use that knowledge to positively influence and advance it. And I’ve seen leaders who are terribly off-mark, preferring to avoid the people side of leadership in favor of a lop-sided focus on impersonal measures. Needless to say, these leaders find moderate success, but not without struggle.

The last component of “The Group Recognition Theory” is that leadership is a process between group and leader, a continual interaction focused on creating meaning and achievement. It’s a relational concept, not a transactional one.

In 1991, professors Michael Hackman and Craig Johnson published “Leadership, A Communication Perspective.”  Now in its sixth edition, the book defines leadership as a form of symbolic communication, one requiring a relationship between the sender and receiver of information. In other words, it’s a process. Communication theory recognizes that the act of creating shared meaning – which is at the heart of communication – is a continual cycle of information, feedback, refinement and further information. It is inherently co-creative.

The relationship between leader and group is a similar, co-creative process. What leader is able to achieve all goals alone? What group is able to refine and clearly communicate a group’s mission and values without the crystalizing force of the leader? It is within this relationship that hard distinctions between leader and group give way to soft interconnections that feed and support each other. A group desires a leader to harness its collective power. A leader acknowledges that his authority depends on the ability to reflect and expand the group’s unified essence. What keeps the relationship vibrant and productive is the level and nature of interaction that occurs between group and leader.

And what of this interaction? How is it optimally fashioned and maintained? In truth, the fashioning is part and parcel of the particulars of a group, and its leader. Some groups want continual, upfront interaction. Others prefer an indirect, slightly opaque form. What suits the group, suits the group. Yet there are still certain activities that need consideration in support of the relationship:

  • Listening: The leader regularly and openly listens for the beliefs, experiences and needs of the group and uses that knowledge to reflect back to the group its current state.
  • Support: The group, in turn, provides behavioral and emotional reinforcement to the leader.
  • Translation: The leader proactively creates occasions to share with the group the environmental, social and regulatory conditions that could impact or modify the group’s objectives.
  • Action: The group carries out its work to achieve their objectives fully and with great focus.

What is of greatest import is the recognition and embrace of leadership as process, by both the leader and the group. More than symbolic, leader-group is symbiotic. Mutual. Interdependent. Ever coupled, for gain or for loss.





  1. Hi, I beg to differ. There is process as part of leadership, of course. Leadership is about guiding and directing a team to a desired positive outcome! There must be outcome associated with the process otherwise the leadership is without meaning and bound for failure. RJD

  2. Author

    RJD – Thanks for your comment. I agree that outcomes are a necessary measurement of leadership. The process, per se, must lead to measurable outcomes in service of the group and its goals.

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