Effective Leaders Focus on Process

Effective Leaders Focus on Process

December 31, 2018—Effective congregational leaders know the difference between content and process—and they focus on process rather than content. Content has to do with what people say, while process has to do with how people function. Beliefs, doctrines, mission statements, organizational plans, and program agendas are content. Relationships, the hidden life dynamics, vision, leading from the self, and staying connected have to do with process. A focus on process will examine the way a congregation works, how it solves its problems, gathers information, makes decisions, communicates among its members, and so on.

Learning how to distinguish content from process is difficult, especially during times when acute ansitey is at play and leaders become prone to get seduced by the content of what people say—precisely the time when they most need to focus on process in order to know how to respond (what the message is really intended to convey). For example, messages of seduction and criticism sound and feel different, but they are both designed to bring about the same effect: to get the leader to “move back” (to abandon a vision or to not proceed with a plan of action).

Goleman cites a study of leadership among star performers which identified the unique strengths among that elite group. The study identified four competencies: the drive to achieve results, the ability to take initiative, skills in collaboration and teamwork, and the ability to lead teams. But here is the challenge to prevailing notions of leadership as expertise: not a single technical or cognitive competency was identified as a unique strength among these effective leaders.

This finding helps to highlight that effective leadership is not about expertise or technique—it is about the ability to influence emotional process. The leader’s ability to influence emotional process requires a good level of “with-it-ness.” With-it-ness refers to the level of awareness that a leader has about the emotional process at work in the hidden lives of congregations. With-it-ness, however, begins with the leader’s own self-awareness—being in touch with what one is feeling, whether one is reacting or responding (a distinction that is not always easy to make), and with what is going on inside one’s head. Unless congregational leaders can observe and assess their own feelings, biases, perceptual distortions, and impulses, they cannot tell whether their interventions are based on perceptions or reality, or determine what would be the most helpful response in a situation.

Without with-it-ness, leaders cannot assess how the hidden life forces of the congregation are being played out and, therefore, they will not be able to distinguish content from process. With-it-ness includes what Goleman calls resonance, which is akin to empathy. Resonance means being attuned to how others feel in the moment. Only in this way can leaders influence process by saying and doing what is appropriate for emotional process—whether it be to calm anxiety or raise it, confront anger, or respond with humor.(1)

Being attuned to the emotional process of one’s context enables the leader to sense how the shared cultural values and priorities of the congregation are influencing the members. A leader who lacks with-it-ness will not be able to influence the emotional process of his or her congregation because he or she will tend to be out of sync with what is really going on in the group. With-it-ness enables leaders to stay connected emotionally, which facilitates listening and taking other people’s perspectives—to see things from the vantage point of their place in the system. This in turn allows leaders to tune into the emotional channels between people that create emotional resonance. Only when there is emotional resonance between the congregational leader and the congregation are the members able to hear and respond to the challenges of vision. Emotional resonance is what makes it possible for people to hear each other, regardless of the words that are used and regardless of whether the message is comfortable—like a prophetic challenge or in times when brutal honesty and speaking the truth in love are necessary.

Adapted from The Hidden Lives of Congregations.

(1)Daniel Goleman, et al. Primal Leadership (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

Want to learn more about leadership and process? The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in five locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Kansas City MO, and Lynchburg, VA. To learn more about the Leadership in Ministry workshops.


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