The Ws of Leadership

September 17th, 2015

Peter Drucker was one of the great modern day thinkers on management and leadership. In recognition of his work, he obtained a Presidential Medal and received numerous honorary doctorates. Streets and buildings were even named after him. Yet despite the level of insight he provided in so many areas, his contribution to elements of leadership were, well, a little underwhelming:

“The only thing you can say about a leader, is that a leader is somebody who has followers.”

Not exactly a blinding insight, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Drucker is not alone. Thousands, if not millions of individuals and organisations have attempted to define leadership. mch is one of them and I too have found a concise and meaningful definition for leadership to be rather elusive. mch’s definition is perhaps most useful when applied in comparative terms;

‘Leadership is deciding what to do and articulating the decision well to those who matter…..


…Management is implementing the decision well, which often involves getting work done through others.’

To me, such a comparison provides one reason for the ‘fuzziness’ that surrounds leadership: very few people are ‘pure’ leaders - they have to do some management too. Equally, many people with ‘manager’ in their title often have to make and articulate decisions, whether they are operational, financial, organisational or cultural. Furthermore, many without ‘manager’, ‘leader’ or ‘executive’ in their title require a blend of both the above definitions; parenthood springs to mind!

When I struggle to gain clarity on a central management or leadership issue from the ‘usual suspects’ of business schools and consultancy firms, I look to more unconventional sources. A great help in this regard has been Rudyard Kipling, author of many famous works including The Jungle Book.

Specifically, there is a quote from a Kipling poem that often helps to test and clarify my understanding of a topic and it is as follows;

I keep six honest serving men

(they taught me all I knew);

Their names are ‘What’ and ‘Why’ and ‘When’

And ‘How’ and ‘Where’ and ‘Who’.

I’ve found that the ‘W’ questions; ‘What?’, ‘Why?’, ‘When?’, ‘How?’, ‘Where?’ and ‘Who?’ are crucial to obtaining clarity on any issue. I’ve also found that, for certain issues, some ‘W’ questions are more important or relevant than others. In my view this is true of leadership.

The What and Why of Leadership

While there can be merit in trying to agree upon what leadership is; spending hours debating a definition is rarely time well spent. Instead, there is a case for moving swiftly on to the next ‘W’, ‘Why?’ Again, there can be much debate on such a question, but in my view the answer is relatively simple; ‘because it’s necessary and important for success’.

I think the sports journalist, Robert Kitson, put it well when he wrote:

“Leadership is one of those things which doesn’t really matter until you look around and realise that you do not have any.”


The ‘When?’ question for leadership invokes an interesting dilemma, as it implicitly asks whether the leadership role should constantly remain with the same person. The importance of delegation follows on from such a question.

A common characteristic of all the great leaders I’ve met is that they’ve known when to lead and when not to lead. Doing the latter often requires the most courage and certainly the most trust. The businessman Philip Flynn summarises it well:

“There are always three leadership choices: 1. Lead 2. Follow 3. Get out of the way

All are valid depending on the context.”


The ‘How’ of Leadership often receives the most column inches and there are numerous books extolling a set number of steps, secrets or ingredients to successful leadership. Consultancy firms also conduct significant amounts of research on how leaders operate, and a recent study by the firm McKinsey & Company, surveyed 189,000 people in 81 diverse organisations around the world. The study, entitled ‘Decoding Leadership: What really matters’, suggested there were four key behaviours that accounted for 89% of leadership effectiveness:

  1. Being supportive
  2. Being strongly orientated on results
  3. Seeking different perspectives
  4. Solving problems effectively

I don’t know about you, but the accuracy with which they quantify effectiveness (89%!) raises both an eyebrow and a wry smile.

In addition to competencies, ‘How’ also involves one’s style of leadership. There are numerous leadership styles put forward and this blog is not the place to review them all, but for those with an interest in this area, I recommend the book ‘Primal Leadership’ by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee.

There is general consensus that no single leadership style is superior to all others and a significant amount of research suggests the best leaders are able to vary their style according to circumstances. Furthermore, when it comes to great leaders, whatever their style, they remain authentic. For me, the importance of authenticity is encapsulated in the following two quotes:

“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”


“It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.”

Adlai Stevenson


They say ‘Location, Location, Location’ are the three most important considerations when buying a house. I’m not sure the same applies to leadership, but great leaders are invariably tuned into their environment. They sense where there is a need for public displays of leadership and where a quiet word with an individual is more appropriate. They also understand that leadership cannot be switched off at their convenience. While people will not always do what a leader asks, they’re invariably listening and watching the leader. A great leader understands the role model status that this implies. As the trainer David Cotton puts it:

“Everything that you say and do gives permission for your team to say and do the same things.”


For me this is perhaps the most fundamental ‘W’ question when it comes to leadership.

Are you the right person to lead? Do you want to lead?

In my mentoring and coaching work, these are often the central questions leaders continually ask themselves. Leadership is not for everyone and without both the requisite competencies and an authentic motivation for the role, it is best left alone. Not just for your sake, but for those would-be followers.

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