Leadership: an Art or a Process?
This a reproduction of a post I originally wrote January 16th, 2015.
Some of the officers in our esteemed Headquarters sat down to chat about leadership yesterday. One of the questions posed was “Is Leadership an Art or a Process?” That might seem an odd question, but the Army first began writing doctrine as we know it now (manuals, etc.) pertaining to Leadership in the 40s, even if the topic is as old as humanity.
Currently, the Army defines leadership as a process (we’ve gone back and forth a bunch). That’s not correct, in my view. If a process is “a series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular end,” it should be clear why this is such a poor fit. Leadership is continuous — there is no particular end. Leadership underpins processes and actions, it is not the product thereof. If we were to think of an assembly line as representing a process, leadership is the factory in which the assembly line operates. That is especially true of the Army.
If that isn’t clear, try this: Leadership is a process in the same way that painting (or composing) is a process. If you desire to be a good painter, you must master the various tools of that profession. You must be able to mix colors and stretch canvas, prepare your palette and clean your brushes, and so many other things. However, knowing how to do those things and doing them at the proper time is not what makes you a painter. The mechanics of your brushstrokes will not make what you create desirable. It is your ability to “see” a situation and bring together the subjects, the materials, and create something harmonious based on a vision that makes a painting into something desirable. Da Vinci, Picasso, Manet, Monet, Warhol, Adams, Motzart — I am sure each one had a process, a methodology, but that was not what made them great. So it is with leadership.
I mention this because no great artist — whether that Art is Leadership, Music, Painting, Literature — achieves greatness through conformity. They do not do their best work carefully following a plan, a process set forth by someone else. The great among us are often inspired by the great before us, but their individual identities and characters are equally important. You simply cannot “paint-by-number” a path to greatness…and, in some cases, you cannot even “paint-by-number” folks to competence. That’s worth remembering when you develop institutional/organization culture — the goal is not running everyone through the same process/assembly line. The goal is a team where individuals can apply their particular talents and strengths to meet a common vision while the organization continues to grow and cultivate that talent