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A Lesson in Leadership Grammar

November 01, 2022 Leadership
Dr. Steven Sherpard
By Steven Shepard LinkedIn

Now that the turmoil of the last few years seems to be abating, I have begun to do in-person workshops again with leadership teams at my client companies. At a recent event, I had a long conversation with the senior leadership team of a large company about the challenges they're facing as organizational leaders. I was intrigued by their answers, so much so that over the course of the next few weeks, as I met with other leadership groups across a variety of companies in vastly different industries, I arranged to have the same conversations.

The results were identical across all the meetings, regardless of industry, size or product set. I want to share what I noticed because the implications are important.

The Difference Between Management and Leadership Grammar

Do you remember being taught in school about the parts of speech — nouns, adjectives, verbs, objects, participles, adverbs and so on? If so, you may recall that adverbs ask six questions: who, what, when, where, how and why.

Only two of these are what I call leadership adverbs. The other four, while important, fall under the aegis of management. The reason I’m transporting you back to your early schooldays is because during all of those leadership conversations I engaged in, without a single exception, the questions asked by leaders fell under the management domain.

Let me explain.

Think about a large project, controlled by an equally large budget, and driven by one or more reasonably demanding clients. A set of entirely appropriate questions regarding the project are:

  • Who will be involved in project execution?
  • What are the critical steps for success?
  • When must we meet certain benchmarks to ensure that we’re on-target?
  • Where will the project be executed?

Those are important questions, without responses to which the project can descend into chaos and be placed in serious jeopardy. But long before these questions are asked, leadership must step in with its own questions, which are the two remaining adverbs:

  • Why are we undertaking this project in the first place?
  • How will we execute it successfully?

Those two questions, unlike the first four, are strategic. The others are tactical. Yet time and time again, I found that leaders would drift toward conversations about getting answers to the tactical questions, those that management should be worrying about, not leadership.

The reasons for this tendency are easy to understand. Most executives rise to their current positions from lower-level responsibilities in the organization, where they had operational or tactical responsibilities which they know very well how to address, and which they know they can do successfully. So they are naturally drawn to those tasks that allow them to use their bias for action. And operational and tactical tasks are shorter-term by nature, which means that results can be more easily seen.

Related Article: Thriving in Turbulent Times: The 5 Leadership Superpowers – The Present Futurist

Let 'How' and 'Why' Drive Your Attention

In a previous article I wrote about blind spots. This is one of those. Leaders must pause to assess themselves in terms of where they’re placing their attention. If they constantly ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, they’re leading.

But if they find themselves falling into the trap of the managerial adverbs, beware: they are engaged in a dangerous double whammy. Not only are they abdicating their responsibility as a leader, but they are also sending a message to their people that their efforts are falling short. Leave the who, what, when and where questions to the managers. Focus instead on how and why.

About the Author

Dr. Steven Shepard is the founder of the Shepard Communications Group in Williston, Vt.

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