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Leadership Is An Art

The WHATs and HOWs of Leadership

With regard to leadership development, I’ve become fond of telling my clients that all the low-hanging fruit has been picked by now. The world is full of 3-step processes, leadership style assessments, how-to books, and nothing else new under the sun. And the search continues for that leadership “magic bullet.”

I believe there are two undeniable aspects to becoming a truly great leader. And neither is easy, quick, or discovered by looking to external resources (i.e.: there is no magic bullet). Which is precisely what makes truly great leadership so elusive. It’s 100% dependent on you. And on me.

“If we really want to understand what leadership looks like, we need to look in the mirror.” – Richard Dillard

The Undeniable

Humanity. Leaders are human beings who are in a position to influence, guide, and inspire other human beings. We will never become truly great leaders until we become comfortable with this notion of humanity. Human beings come with free will, independent minds, emotions, personal desires, and a set of fundamental needs including acceptance, validation, and understanding.
As leaders will find out, human beings resist being controlled. Human beings are naturally creative beings. Resourceful beings, who thrive when asked to participate, to share their perspective, and when listened to. This does not bode well for ‘leadership’ that simply seeks employee obedience and adherence.

Attend to our HOW. Any leadership process involves 2 key components. There’s the task. The WHAT. A focus on the tactical: What are we doing? When are we doing it? Who is taking what step; who is performing which task.

And there’s the relationship. The HOW. How I am relating with you while we’re working on the task? How am I BEing? How is the quality of my presence? Of my listening? How am I inviting your opinions, concerns, questions and how am I addressing them?

Becoming a truly great leader means realizing that our HOW makes or breaks our WHAT. You may have experienced a scenario like this…the leadership team spent much time and energy creating a thoroughly planned out WHAT (a process re-design, a new marketing campaign, a change in a role or responsibilities, etc). Leadership communicates the new WHAT to team members through email. Individuals interpret what they’re reading in numerous and various ways, based on their individual filters and priorities. Rather than fostering a sense of curiosity and engagement about the new WHAT, we are now facing a sense of resistance and skepticism.

A poor HOW will undermine the best WHAT every time.

What comprises a poor HOW?

  • Poor quality of presence; that is: being in a hurry, being overly task-focused and inattentive towards people (glossing over or avoiding their concerns), coming off as inauthentic, having a judgmental or close-minded presence, feeling frustrated, etc.
  • Communication that tells, explains, justifies without inquiring into others’ concerns, interpretations, needs.
  • Poor quality of listening. As Stephen Covey said “Most of us listen with the intent to reply, not with the intent to understand.”
  • Little or no attention on HOW people are feeling about the WHAT that’s been communicated.

So, what do we do? Or, perhaps a better question and in keeping with the theme of this post – How do we BE? I’d like to offer a few practical ideas or remedies for each of the “pitfalls” above.

  1. Pay attention to your presence FIRST. Our doing always flows from our being. Meaning if I am feeling rushed or frustrated, it will be nearly impossible for others to believe that I am open to their concerns or willing to take time for their needs. I wrote this post, which delves deeper into how to attend to our Leadership Presence.The post concludes with an exercise and an audio download for you.
  2. Ensure your communication involves plenty of listening. It’s been said that we have 2 ears and 1 mouth because we are meant to listen twice as much as we speak. I encourage my coachees to develop a habit of asking a question after each statement they make. For example:
    I’d like to talk with you about revising our process of _____ / adjusting the way we handle _____. When would be a good time for you?
  3. If the WHAT involves a change to something existing, be sure to share the reasoning behind the change and any back-story from your own personal perspective. Rather than saying, “Leadership has decided…” try “Joe, Sue, Sally, and I got together to look at the way we’ve been handling ______. We’ve had some concerns because the current process does / doesn’t _______. We thought if we could come up with a way to ______ that it might have a big impact on ______. Here’s what we’ve been bouncing around… OR Here’s what we’d like to try…”
  4. After sharing details around the WHAT, be prepared to spend time listening! Take the time right then and there to listen to how your communication was interpreted and to clarify any misunderstandings. Remember, the other human beings involved are hearing your words through their very individual filters. A misunderstanding or disparate interpretation does not mean someone is WRONG. It simply means someone is HUMAN and has a different brain/mind than you do.
  5. Conclude the conversation by placing your attention on the person him or herself.
    • What are you sensing in their facial expressions? Their body language? Let them know what you sense. “I’m sensing some hesitancy. Would you like to tell me about your concerns?”
    • Ask a question to get a sense of how they are feeling and where they are in that moment: “I realize this is a lot to consider. How is this landing for you?”
    • Just listen and acknowledge how they feel. Don’t try to explain anything or talk them out of their feelings. Your sincere presence and authentic caring here go a very long way in building trust as well as commitment.
    • Ask a question that leads to a plan and mutual understanding for how you will both move forward: “How can I support you as we take the next steps to move this forward?”

Grab our download with a few sample questions to get you started:
effective questions download button

With best wishes,
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De Yarrison

De is a certified professional Coach, Teambuilder and Facilitator of positive change. She is an adventurer in the world of relationships, blazing new trails of positive expression, resulting in happier leaders, employees, workplaces (and families).
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