What not how

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Peter F. Drucker

“Doing the right things,” means leaders determine, clarify, and communicate what is done.

The other day I had a long conversation with a fellow leader concerning the execution of a plan. I thought we had already agreed on the plan and I was ready to set things in motion. However, he had concerns. He’s not the rethinking type so I was surprised to encounter his reluctance.

In the beginning, our conversation focused on how to execute the plan.

The problem with how conversations

How-conversations frequently express personal preferences, territorial perspectives, what about’s, and what if’s. They may quickly obscure real issues. What you want to accomplish can be defeated by how to get it done.

With airport announcements filtering over the phone we explored and re-explored how to complete the plan. Each step forward included two points of confusion. Each positive statement was followed by two, “what if’s.” The longer we talked the darker things became.

The power of what

I’ve learned to pull away from confusion before it paralyzes. We saw a light at the end of the tunnel when we shifted back to what we were trying to accomplish.

Previously, I thought we both understood the what. We hadn’t.

You’re doomed if you begin a how conversation before you agree upon and clarify the what.

“What’s” have more power to motivate than how-to’s. When what you are doing is important enough you’ll figure out how to do it.

Two examples

Conflict resolution is an ugly power struggle until all parties can explain and agree upon what harmony looks like.

Customer service representatives must clarify what customer want before they know how to excel customer expectations.


Confusion or contention may signal the need to refocus and agree on what you’re working to accomplish.


Have you seen a great idea killed by how’s?

How can leaders keep great what’s at the center of how conversations?


Want something new but you’re afraid?