People Centered Leadership: Leading People vs. Managing Process

This is the second blog in a series exploring how to move from 'The Age of Engagement' to 'Inclusive, Transformational Leadership'.

In our quest to understand engagement, we’ve lost sight of the fact that lack of engagement is a leadership problem- not a ‘people’ or ‘culture’ problem. There is a profound difference between leaders who primarily manage process—how work gets done—and those who are true leaders of people-- of real, live human beings. Leaders who put people first lead with people at the center of all they do.

When volume is high, and complexity abounds, leaders can go ‘heads down,’ thinking that their role is to ‘be another pair of hands’ or ‘get into the day to day,’ or the ‘fray’ of activity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. People need their leaders to not work levels below themselves or get mired in the day-to-day. They are counting on leaders to hold the strategic vision, to be thoughtful and intentional about organizational resources, to keep momentum alive and morale high. Leaders ‘getting involved in details’ or ‘staying close to the work’ can be demoralizing, and feels a lot like ‘micromanaging.’ Even though it can be a stress reliever to leaders who feel like they are doing something tangible to help, it can increase the stress and compromise the performance of people who are counting on their leaders to… lead- to lead them as human beings through tough times, through challenging work or around unpredictable corners.

It’s not surprising that leaders are more comfortable managing process than leading people. It reflects how they’ve been trained. In business school, future leaders are taught to rationally deconstruct business problems with the goal of identifying what levers could be pulled to impact the outcome. Leaders rise up through an organization based on their ability to get results, more often than on how they inspire people to do their best work. In the scores of organizations I’ve worked with over three decades, rarely have I seen leaders held accountable for unlocking the potential in their people in the same way they are held accountable for delivering results.

People Centered Leadership requires determination. It requires the courage to forge into the murkier areas of being a leader able to inspire people to do their best work. When leaders focus on people first, they model true customer centrism. They accelerate process improvements because they are about the person who will use, benefit or be impacted by them. People Centered Leadership inspires teams to contribute discretionary energy in good and bad times.

“At its deepest level, engagement is a powerful ingredient for achieving transformative results.  Yet we treat it like a transactional exercise….”

Leaders of people don’t necessarily possess unique motivational skills. What they do have is the capacity to show up as humans: with vulnerability, integrity, care, and the ability to move people and systems based on a deep caring for people that translates into behaviors that reflect that mindset.

Skilled leaders of people leave the managing of process to the smart people they have hired. They know that diving into managing process sends a mixed message of trust. What would change for you, for your team and for your organization if you put people in the center of all you do?


Over the next several weeks, we will be sharing a series of blog posts exploring how to move from ‘The Age of Engagement’ to ‘Inclusive, Transformational Leadership’. Join our mailing list for series updates.