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Leadership: WHATs are Easy; HOWs are Hard

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

The world is calling for a new kind of leader – one who is caring, respectful and trustworthy. Most leaders today are directive and demanding – it’s how they got where they are, and they were rewarded for it. How would they know any better? The directive style is effective to a point; it creates fearful but compliant workers. What these well-meaning leaders need is committed followers to lever up performance.

One would think as often as these sentiments get expressed, we would put more stock in them and pursue living them. If it’s as simple as these proverbs, why don’t we just do it?

There are so many adages that ring true for this conversation. It is as if everything old is new again.

“They may not remember what you said. They may not remember what you did. But they will always remember how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou and others)

“Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” (Bible and predecessors)

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Drucker)

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” (various)

While the answer is simple, the cure is mighty. Here are a few reasons why we find these actions so difficult and the problem is so complex.

1. We got here honestly. We got here by being know-it-alls (Dare to Lead, Brene’ Brown). We were rewarded early in our careers for being the smartest guy in the room. We made our way up the ranks by learning and following our possibly narcissistic mentors until we could direct people ourselves, have a wooden desk, a simulated leather chair and a window. We became tellers, sellers, and yellers (Conversational Intelligence, Judith Glaser). People lived in some kind of fear of the consequences of poor performance or not going along to get along. In industries where market swings were annual or even more frequent, such as automotive or oil and gas, hiring and firing waves were like that of the sickening swells of a skiff in a squall. Everyone knew they were one “re-engineering” event away from the unemployment line – a long unemployment line. They couldn’t see over the hill. They were afraid of the unknown. Therefore, intimidation was effective for the supervisor and more understandable for the workplace victims. It was almost accepted. People performed – while they had one eye on the want ads - and they were afraid. Leading by intimidation got compliance, and that was the way of the work world. Leaders were rewarded for it and their behavior was reinforced as the right way. When you are a fish in a fish bowl, you don’t necessarily know you are in a fish bowl.

2. The employees didn’t leave for better treatment, but then later they did. For a while, people stayed and endured. People were staying at companies not for their teams or supervisors, but for their long-term health and wealth – their security. At about the time the Millennials were born, companies abandoned retiree medical benefits and pension plans, seeing the 401K as the preferred and less risky means of preparing people to supplement Social Security. From 1988 to 2015, companies carrying retiree medical plans decreased from 66% to 23% (Kaiser Family Foundation, May 5, 2016). With the 401K, you no longer had to stay and endure at a company to keep your nest egg. The few benefits that kept potentially or actually miserable employees in their seats were suddenly disappearing. There was less penalty for job hopping and more turnover consequences for poor managers. Companies suddenly had to deal with the exodus of good people.

3. We had no enlightened mentors. The mid-career workforce had no one to emulate. For a long time, companies didn’t invest in better treatment of people as a leadership skill. We learned from the last leader that did it wrong. The One Minute Manager (Blanchard/Johnson) was suddenly a best seller, but since we didn’t grow up with ready mentors with great leadership skills, we had nowhere to turn to ask. Everyone we saw was a hard-charging, long-hours, company-flag-waving, committed leader. That was the model.

4. We were snapped to attention. Millennials caused us to wake up and smell the turnover (not the apple turnover). We pushed back and raged against the machine – to no avail. Suddenly, the Millennials noticed the emperor had no clothes. They were calling the corporate bluff. They wanted flexibility, good pay, technology, and to understand the cosmic “WHY” of the company’s existence. How would their work save the world, or at least make it a better place?

With the impending retiree flight as the Boomers entered their 60s, companies needed new, tech-savvy, Millennial magic. The information age was waning only because the digital age was supplanting it. And now in the nearing 2020 era with 3.7 percent pre-recession unemployment rates, companies need workers more than ever. Dr. Ray Perryman of the Perryman Group published on September 25, 2017, “Change is coming for the US workforce with the retiring of baby boomers and slower population growth, and long-term prosperity hinges on the ability to tap into the global workforce.” It is beginning to happen. Maybe we should be opening the borders rather than closing them. Also, now, 34% of the workforce where I work consists of Millennials and Generation Z’s. While we often refer to Millennials in a negative light just because they are different (painted with a way too broad brush), I applaud them for standing up, and they are not going along to get along. It is important to note the new age workers are not loyal – 60% leaving in the first three years (The Atlantic, 2019).

A PricewaterhouseCoopers study in 2013 showed the new generation wants productivity measured in work output, not hours, and want more flexibility. They want a workplace of community – fun and social. They also want to understand the greater purpose of work. The bootstrap Boomers want to tell the Millennials to dig in, gut it through and earn their stripes, while the New Generation tells them to pound sand. Funny thing – I was on a conference panel where the topic was Millennials in the workplace. The audience was a group of Boomer-age CFOs. I asked the audience, “Which of you do not want all of the same things these Millennials want?” Yep, no one raised their hand. We just never thought to ask for it. We were too intimidated. So now what? The headline of the July 2019 journal published by the Association of Talent Development reads “Manage the Resignation Tsunami”. It feels sudden, even though the winds of change have been whipping our sails for decades.

In addition, now more than ever, we insist on civil treatment of employees. With the EEOC as busy as ever, processing mal-treatment claims and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements rightfully standing up for mostly women’s rights, companies cannot tolerate poor treatment of workers. This is real, folks. We are snapping to attention.

5. Change is hard. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. The main reason we have not responded well to the need for a kinder, gentler leadership style, while even knowing well what we NEED to do to be great leaders is, duh, it’s hard work. For those smartest guys in the room who have worked this way so long, been rewarded handsomely for driving results and reckless treatment of valued employees, seemingly sudden change feels unnecessary, illogical and unnatural. We view those employees who resigned and left the organization as not being able to “hack it”. When you start with managers (not leaders) who are not self-aware, who don’t believe their negative 360 feedback and coupled with the feelings that change is unnecessary, illogical and unnatural, your odds of effecting real change in them is about that of winning a Super Bowl against Tom Brady! Later in this piece, I offer a leg up on personal change based on research and proven approaches. Everything old is new again.

Leadership is Misunderstood

Leadership is misunderstood. Leadership doesn’t require direct reports. We are leaders if an onlooker sees us doing something caring, respectful or trustworthy and wants to emulate it in their own workspace. Often leadership is thought of as accomplishing something with a team, but managers, who are often not good leaders, can get tasks completed with a team without effective leadership skills and with a bit of carnage. Bribery, threats, and fear get tasks done just like inspired, relationship-based, intrinsic motivation. They just don’t stand to get as much done as can an effective, engaging leader. Most self-proclaimed leaders in our workspace, particularly masculine-cultured workspaces like manufacturing or industrial, are really managerial task masters getting compliance out of people. They don’t listen, are not self-aware and if they care, they are unable to show it to their team. Leadership just doesn’t feel necessary.

Those old school managers were promoted and rewarded for their directive style even as a know-it-all and thus their styles were reinforced as being right. These managers Tell, Sell, and Yell (Conversational Intelligence – Glaser). Their direct reports deliver out of fear. The fear is the fear of failing and being cast into the great unknown of unemployment or underemployment. At worst, they fear being ridiculed by their boss in public. But not all workers have a tolerance for that style.

The new generations and some long-timers are not willing to subject themselves to such styles, behavior and arrogance. It is a candidate market and they have choices. Somehow, we have to redefine leadership for the current unenlightened managers such that they desire these new attributes and nuances. Understanding the underlying purpose of leadership is to remove the unknown and the fear of consequences and then executing to accomplish confidence is critical to levering up performance. We need to move to a work situation where employees are not afraid to try and fail, to see that failure is part of learning. ( Sunnie Giles, a contributor to Forbes noted in 2018, “Today’s leaders must tolerate -- indeed, embrace -- failure as a necessary input to radical innovation.” In the VUCA, Whack-A-Mole world, the plan we made last month is already ill-advised. Placing the know-it-all management styles of the 1980s up against this new dynamic is a recipe for mass exits of great people.

What are the building blocks of great leaders? What are the WHATs they need to do?

I spent a lifetime observing this phenomenon and three years of my life researching the subject. Caring, Respect and Trust build the base for good leadership. And they happen to be the hardest and first steps. People usually don’t get past those steps, because it is hard work. I’m sure your work cabinet is full of binders of PowerPoint slides from training sessions where you made lists of changes you want to make personally and professionally. We speak the new language for a week or so. We might even try some of the keys to success. Then then over a few days – we don’t. It is just too hard. So how do they start?


Emerging leaders have to get in touch with valuing the power of caring and seeking what caring looks like. I use a story about a daughter and a cubicle. Here is an example to help us pinpoint the true meaning of workplace caring.

The Daughter Story

I had a CFO who asked me what I learned in graduate school about leadership, and could I write it on the back of a matchbook? I studied a minute and answered, “Caring!” He was a little bit surprised at the simplicity of the answer, so I took the liberty to tell a story for illustration. If you were allowed to hire your daughter who is just out of college and not employed as yet, and you put her in a cubicle outside your office, how would you make sure she was successful? He gave me all of the correct parental answers about introducing her around, connecting her to those who would be instrumental in her success, and checking on her throughout the day to see she was excited and engaged. I validated him, “Of course you would! She’s your daughter.” But what about that person three cubicles down? She has worked for you for three years. You are not exactly sure what her last name is, or where she lives, much less her career desires. What is the only difference in that other person and your daughter? The only difference is how much you care!”

See, caring is the central value and critical characteristic of great leaders. I’m not asking that we care for our employees like we would our own daughters, but somewhere between our own daughter and not knowing the last name of a three-year employee working just down the way is a gap that is begging to be closed. Any small movement – and it doesn’t take much effort or movement – is a huge victory for us and for that person who may feel forgotten.

Showing caring is not natural for many of us. It sounds fake at first. “How are you?” as you greet a coworker at the coffee bar looking for an elusive stir-stick. The question fills the awkward silence, and you are proud, because you said it first. They answer, “Fine!” and ask the same of you. You brilliantly fill the remaining void with, “Good!” There may be a residual, “That’s good”, but neither of you really mean it, or if you did, neither want to spend social capital on that conversation. Heck, you need coffee and you have 78 emails unanswered back at your desk. If you were intentional about showing caring, you would ask follow-up questions about the quality of the weekend. Even if you don’t care, the positive reaction you are likely to generate will create satisfaction. The more you talk, generally the more connected you become. You might extend the conversation by adding questions. You might ask if they did anything fun? Did the weather interfere with plans? Who won the Little League game? How did you shoot? Caring builds connections and connections build relationships necessary for leadership.


Employee surveys invariably indicate respect is the number one issue behind the intractable pay issues. People feel disregarded, another cog in the big machine, a number in a chart or an island in a sea of cubicles. Reaching back to that idea of people needing attention or significance, respect is tied directly. When managers are faced with boosting their impact in the area of respect, they are stumped. How do I instill a feeling of respect in my workers? While there are many subtle ways, the most purposeful and overt way is just to stop and generously listen to people. It sounds easy, and with the people you know well, it might even be easy. For those who you don’t know well or who are down the organization from you, such that you rarely run across them at the office, it is harder.

The keys to generous listening are few, but weighty. Number one is to be intentional. Stop what you are doing and ask an engaging question such as, “We don’t get to talk much – tell me what you are working on these days.” And wait intently for a response. While waiting for that response, make eye contact. Don’t look past them. Lean in. Don’t look at your phone, even if it rings. Be mindful of your body language. If you look as if you are just waiting anxiously for them to finish so you can correct them or tell them what you think they should do, you will likely fail to connect to them. It is the connection you are after. Even if the person is saying something so wrong or reckless, let them finish. Your response with generous listening is often to acknowledge or thank them for bringing the facts to your attention. If the comments are grossly off base, the response after acknowledgement might be, “Those are interesting thoughts. Tell me more.” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” or “Give me an example so I can really get a grasp of your situation.” I have the ability to watch Netflix, look at my phone and listen to my wife at the same time – although not that well. My wife does not see it that way. And she shouldn’t. “They may not remember what you said. They may not remember what you did. But they will always remember how you made them feel.” Listen to people until they feel heard. Once managers get that down as a skill, it connects.


Trust is about integrity and honesty. It is about making things right when they go wrong. It is about doing what you say you will do. Once you have caring and respect down, the trust part likely follows. Much has been written about trust by McChrystal in Team of Teams, by Babin and Willink in Extreme Ownership, by Covey in The Speed of Trust, and by Abrashoff in It’s Your Ship. Most of the sentiment around trust has to do with stepping out of your comfort zone, admitting that you may not be the smartest guy in the room about everything, and letting people feel the power of trust and accomplishment. If you have done a good job with caring and you invest in the concepts of respect-building, then trust-building is much easier and may, in fact, come naturally.

Caring, respect and trust are the keys to great leadership. But just because it seems simple, doesn’t mean it is easy. In fact, learning how to perform those tasks and being consistent and genuine as you execute them is a huge challenge. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it and be great at it, and no one would be seeking out these articles or books. Once those skills are honed, people get what they need. They get significance or “attention” (Nine Lies About Work – Buckingham/Goodall) and will build relationships and connections with you. Relationships and connections are necessary for gathering followers. Once you have followers – you are, in fact, a leader.

If it is that simple, why aren’t we flooded with great leaders?

Well, it IS simple. But it is VERY HARD. Understanding we need to be more caring, respectful and trustworthy is the easy part. Those are the WHATs of leadership. We have all had leadership training or sensitivity training or multi-generational training. We seem to know people are different. We know, sometimes intuitively, WHAT we need to do to be a great leader. We just can’t seem to consistently do it. What could be the cause of that?

We got here honestly as we have already explored. We were rewarded for the hard charging, do more with less, and drive to the goal attitude. We tested people to the limits. We just don’t understand how to do it differently.

The speed of life gets in the way. We are available 24/7, and we don’t feel like we have time for ourselves, much less anyone else. Family, job, workouts, finances, continuing education, social media and any other non-work-related activity compete for valuable time. We are tired, stressed and exasperated.

We are not compelled. Some of our companies have not embraced the new thoughts around effective and engaging leadership. They are content with the limited productivity and high turnover. Work harder! Go faster! People will get behind the success regardless of how we treat them.

We avoid stress. Many managers who are simply pushing or forcing results through the system are perfectly comfortable doing so without regret or remorse. They are getting some results. Anyone suggesting that they should do it differently, will cause them stress. When they are asked by an authority figure or an executive coach or are forced to behave differently than their nature would normally lead them, it triggers the amygdala part of the brain’s reptilian response (Crucial Conversations). Bad know-it-all behaviors leading to early career success become bad habits. Bad habits are comfortable. Anything they do contrary to the habit or that is contrary to their personality, is unnerving. That is a feeling we avoid.

Personal change (The HOWs) to accomplish those behaviors of caring, respect and trust is hard. WHATs are easy. HOWs are hard. It’s just hard. But if we succeed, even to a small amount in being an inclusive, respectful, and trustworthy learner, we get commitment from followers. That commitment generates engagement, ownership, and personal drive. Leaders who are “just okay” are no longer good enough for today’s workers. If they begin to love their team, maybe they won’t leave. People love their teams even when they don’t love their companies. They can become followers.

How does a willing leader go about making personal change?

We are going against nature, history, comfort and logic. Who am I to suggest personal change to a person who is perfectly happy telling, selling and yelling? And they are getting results doing it.

After researching the subject and devising my own version of a personal change model, “Go L.E.A.D.©”, I wanted to verify it. I looked to those who have a history of successfully turning the battleship of personal change. Bill Wilson or “Bill W.”, who founded an organization of 10,000 groups and currently two million people seems to have found workable answers. Bill’s legacy organizations shepherd people through deep personal change with Alcoholics Anonymous and its sister meetings. Interestingly, the principles line up well with my proposed change process. When we put the principles of Bill W. and the Go L.E.A.D. model side by side the connection is pleasing.

The basis of go lead came from studying the change models and commentary of renown authors and thought leaders proven over time. The beginning concept is “go”. John Kotter in his book, Leading Change, suggests in the opening chapters people don’t successfully change because they simply don’t get started. Duh! As such, it seemed plausible that the first step in the personal change process should be “go”. Go is not a simple as we think. And it compares with Bill W.’s first step of admitting you have a problem, or more constructively said, “an opportunity to change” and that change is necessary for success. Go also implies a sense of faith and hope, which are also foundational elements of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Next is the “L” in “LEAD”. “L” stands for “Letting Go” of the past and the comfort and security of your old tried and true behaviors. Gestalt Theory refers to grieving the old way or recognizing intellectually that you must separate yourself from your old behavior. The task of letting go is similar to grieving a loss. You must give it time and not expect it to run its course overnight. Grieving is an important part of recognizing that you have a challenge and committing to the process of making significant change. Bill W. called this the “willingness” to let go of old behaviors.

The “E” in LEAD refers to “Emotionally Compelling Reasons”. In a great conversation I had with Flip Flippen who wrote The Flip Side, he aptly identified that people need to have an emotionally compelling reason to change. Our conversation took us to how you make that connection for people at work. We discussed that most people exhibit the same bad habits at home as they do at work. We concluded that the people will more likely connect to a reason to change if they view the negative impacts of home-related behaviors rather than those at work. Bill W. refers to this as “courage” to look at ourselves and how we impact others with our behaviors.

The “A” in LEAD is my favorite aspect of personal change and likely the single most important showing of vulnerability. It is telling for leaders who actually choose this and use this. It is the “Accountability Partner”. An accountability partner is a person you trust, and preferably not a person to whom you are related or married. There are good reasons for this – just in case the relationship gets testy. This is the person you trust to watch for the negative behavior. You trust them and give them permission to call you out. You want them to pull you aside and say, “Hey, Bob, you asked me to tell you when I saw you talking over people or interrupting. Well, do you remember doing that with Beth in the meeting?” You can see that trust is a major part of this relationship. Bill W. calls this “discipline“ and parallels the design of the sponsor figure in AA. The sponsor is the person the addict can confide in and can call in times of stress. The sponsor is also charged with advising the addict. Being accountable to someone you trust helps keep you on track.

Lastly, the “D” in LEAD refers to Doing. Sometimes we have to act our way into a different way of feeling. When it doesn’t “feel right” as Simon Sinek refers to as coming from the inner part of the brain, the limbic brain, it is an emission of feelings instead of language. We have to “Just do it” even if it doesn’t feel right. Bill W. refers to this as perseverance. We have to train like two-a-days. We must just start doing it, even if it doesn’t feel right. If we begin acting our way, people, especially our accountability partner or sponsor, will notice. The positive feedback we get from the unrewarded effort will drive us to want to feel that satisfaction more. One day it will become an unsolicited drive to do those things until it becomes a good habit.

There you have it. Go L.E.A.D.! I guess you could say these are the WHATs of the HOWs. They still are not easy, but at least is it aligns with some of the most successful change models of our time.

The concept of personal change is easy like the concepts of all of those leadership tips and behaviors that we sincerely want to emulate. The thoughts around it and the internal motivation is there. We now must undertake the personal change model to press through to a new us. And even as a leader exhibiting new behaviors, we are not believable at first. It looks like another flavor of the month or a flea dip until we are consistent. It is a long process --months or years -- but it is clearly worthwhile.

So what?

I like to ask myself, “So what” at the beginning of every new initiative, report or fact finding. What, if anything, will I or the business do differently once I have this answer?” It is a litmus test for enterprise value, time savings, or financial impact. Does it make the world or even a small part of the world better, faster or simpler? Does it inform caring, respect or trust?

If we keep the perspective that everyone is in search of significance, and inside every person you know is a person you don’t know, the value of what we do as a leader will be easier to see.

Foundationally, it is Situational Leadership’s raison d’etre. Using one leadership or communication mode for the infinite number of different personalities and the multigenerational nature of our workforces is a recipe for failure as a leader. People are people. You have to build relationships to be effective. You are likely missing out on additional productivity from your workforce by using only one mode of leading for everyone. That delta productivity gap could be closed by moving people from fearful compliance to engaged commitment. We want attention (Nine Lies About Work, Buckingham/Goodall). We are lonely, damaged, and tired from all the world is throwing at us – the digital world, finances, family, traffic, the speed of life, and Facebook/Instagram phonies, and we carry it around on our backs every day! Sometimes we wear it on our sleeves.

Attention is addictive. If you can’t connect to this important employee need and the required empathetic sentiment as a leader, you are not building relationships critical to gathering followers. Growing followers defines you as a leader.

September 26, 2019

Rod Branch

Rod Branch is the owner of WholeHeartMind Business Consulting LLC and the former Chief Human Resources Officer for HydroChemPSC, a North American leader in industrial services. Rod has B.Sc. in Petroleum Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State University and a M.Sc. in Global Human Resource Management from the University of Liverpool (UK). His past work experience included The Coca-Cola Company, BP and Enron. He has one US Engineering Patent and is a professional musician as an avocation. His blog can be found at

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