Processor leadership is one of the great paradoxes that modern leadership literature can’t explain. How is it that someone who is risk-averse, detail-oriented, and often introverted can be a leader? Aren’t leaders bold, risk-taking, big-picture, larger-than-life leaders? Sure, some are. But not all of them.

As we talked about Visionaries and Operators, it was easy to recognize their leadership “gifts.” Visionaries’ ability to cast vision and rally the troops embodies the 21st-century stereotype of a leader. Operators’ ability to get a ton of stuff done earns them the respect and admiration they need to lead others to bigger and better results.

Yet I work with Visionary/Operator pairs and teams who have hit a wall and cannot create the capacity they need to move forward. They excel at the “organic” growth stage in any team or business environment. However, that meteoric growth slows, not for lack of demand, but a lack of capacity. Once the organization or team has reached a level of internal complexity, it simply cannot be sustained. No matter how much they try to grow, they keep hitting a wall.

I believe that wall is an unnecessarily narrow view on leadership, particularly with Processors, who at that time in the organization are subcontractors, low-level employees, or middle-managers demanded by some outside compliance standard.

For a team to reach its maximum potential, for ideas to spread fully, for productivity to reach the next level, it needs Processor leadership. The question then, is how do we get these often shy, quiet, numbers people to blossom as the leaders that will take us to the next level?

Before we get started, if you don’t already know your style, I encourage you to take the free Leadership styles quiz

Getting to know the Processor

What would a Processor-less world look like? We would have to unwind at least the last 200 years of human progress. For all the glory given to the bold, Visionary leadership and financial success of Sir Henry Bessemer, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford, I believe the industrial revolution was driven more by engineers (or Processors).

These brave leaders were not the powerful Visionaries or Operators (kings, queens, nobles, and merchants) of the day, but they transformed our world more in one century than in all the centuries of human progress before.

This is the power of Processor leadership, and modern society could not exist without it. In fact, despite the media’s leadership stereotypes and spotlights, we are more dependent on a leader who thinks in terms of system, process, repeatability, and precision.

In fact, despite the media's leadership stereotypes and spotlights, we are more dependent on a leader who thinks in terms of system, process, repeatability, and precision. Click To Tweet

And that’s what Processors do. It’s how they are wired. Processors are at their peak when they are systematizing and supervising. Unlike Visionaries and Operators, Processors can stick with projects for the long haul, continuing to extract value and doing so ever more efficiently.

Where Visionaries can drive creativity and decision, and Operators can drive action and results, the realm of lasting change is the purview of Processor leaders. They have an uncanny ability to build long-term changes into the company’s very fiber, creating an immense capacity within the company. In doing so, they unlock true scalability.

Any other style could hire 5-25 people before a processor hired her first. But she would beat everyone else to 100, leave the rest in the dust at 1,000, and train and retain them better than anyone else. Her clinical perspective, ruthless objectivity, and staggering precision gives her the edge over any other style when the numbers get large.

Processor challenges

All this capacity comes at a cost. Like all of the styles, the very strengths of a Processor can be their downfall. These challenges are particularly problematic in the early stages of a company, division, product, or organization.

Processors are “no” first types. They need and express voluminous detail. They don’t carry the raw intuition to make it up as they go. They struggle to speak up when they feel underprepared. They move precisely and slowly.

All of these traits are the opposite of what you need to succeed early on. Too much Processor leadership will cripple a new endeavor before it ever gets off the ground. This is a large part of why big businesses struggle to create new and highly innovative products and services.

What then happens is Processor leadership gets rightly reduced or avoided altogether in young enterprises. But by the time they are needed, the business has already defined its leadership DNA, and they don’t fit.

They typically don’t have the charisma of the Visionary. They don’t make the heroic lunge across the finish line and deliver like an Operator. These traits are celebrated within the organization, bringing the drawbacks of the Processor style into sharp focus.

Processors are more tortoise than hare. Their pace doesn’t vary. In the movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela’s (Visionary) health is deteriorating. His doctor (Processor) tells him he needs to rest and not watch as Francois Pienaar and his rugby team fight for the title. 

Mandela’s wife (Synergist) reminds him, “You need to sleep. The doctor said.” Mandela then responds, “The doctor has no sense of occasion.” 

At their worst, Processors are heavy on the breaks, resistant to change, prone to over-analysis, and slow, slow, slow to move. They will grind a team’s productivity to a halt with little to no concern for their complaints.

This only reinforces leadership and non-leadership stereotypes, and the Processor leader gets fired or relegated to the sidelines as much as possible.

Becoming brilliant

Even more than in the industrial revolution, today’s knowledge economy is deeply dependent on Processor leadership. But Processors have a tough road to leadership. Not matching the stereotype and joining the team a few seasons after everyone else, the odds are stacked against them.

To overcome their internal and external leadership challenges, Processors need to focus on what is important, build bridges, and learn to love leaning in.

Focus on what is important

The value of a Processor grows as the horizon gets further out. The hare made it to the first checkpoint in the lead. It wasn’t until the final stage that the tortoise won. Additionally, in the short run, the natural misalignment of a V-O-P team is greater. If the Processor and the team can stay focused on what is important for the team, they will have a higher chance of getting their contributions acknowledged and implemented.

To do so, Processors often have to lighten up. Your constant risk assessment and threat forecasting is of value insofar as you keep moving. If you stop, the fear and risk will paralyze you. Processors get in trouble with a team here because they will not (and to a degree cannot) move forward.

Building bridges

Processors need to speak up more often, preferably in the form of questions. Often content to sit on the sidelines, Processors will quietly judge the stupidity of the team’s whims and bad ideas. This has two adverse effects. First, the team will distrust them or disregard them. Second, the Processor will grow prideful and buy into the belief they are smarter (which from an IQ statement may be true) than everyone else. In doing so, they start to believe they are better than everyone else, which increases the team’s distrust and disregard.

Speaking more often allows the Processor to learn and understand. Their vulnerability in sharing, especially when the idea isn’t fully formed, makes them more human to the team and builds greater trust going both ways.

Instead of saying no, consider what it would take to get to a yes. As a Processor, you can poke holes in anyone’s idea. Honestly, that’s not very impressive. What is impressive, what counts as Processor leadership, is not only to identify the gaps but to help fill them.

Learn to love leaning in

It is impossible to predict the future with absolute certainty. As proud as you are of the data you have, it is the past data and stands only as a hint of what you can expect in the future. No amount of data or analysis will remove the risk.

Some lessons are learned best as you go. Part of the value of a team is that you can lean into other team members’ strengths. Visionaries can have an unwarranted degree of confidence to move into uncertainty. Sure sometimes that is problematic. But more often than not, it’s what the team needs to get started. Operators may not be able to build an assembly line, but they sure can assemble that first solution incredibly fast. Though it won’t be elegant, it will work, and your systems and processes will be far more effective if they are improving a known solution.

Failure isn’t death. It’s not the end. It is an opportunity to learn. Don’t let your fear of failure or imprecision keep you from taking that first step and learning as you go. When you take that step within the team’s strength, you’ll find that together you have what you need to succeed.

We need Processor leaders more than ever. We need system thinkers and process designers who are willing to step into the ring with Visionaries and Operators to debate the best ideas, commit to the decision, and stick with it through truly effective and scalable implementation.

Going further

If you’d like to continue to develop your Processor leadership gifting, I’d encourage you to take our online course How to be an Exceptional Processor Leader

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and can’t wait to see you become a brilliant operator leader.

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