Ever heard the following statement? “Focus on the what, not the how.” While this may appear to be sage advice, it’s actually quite the opposite. I find it troubling at two levels: Firstly, it’s a horribly incorrect and incomplete message. Secondly, far too many people in leadership positions seem perfectly content to follow this bad advice. In today’s column, I’ll share the reasons underpinning my strong disagreement with using what as a leadership driver.

If you’ve guessed my advice is a bit different from the statement you read in the opening paragraph above, you are correct. Here’s my version –

Focus on the “why”, align the “who” with the “why”, and then allow the “who” to determine the appropriate course of action with regard to “what” and “how” – say that fast five times.

All kidding aside, read my last statement a few times and let it sink in. The powerful difference between my statement in this paragraph, as contrasted with the one in the opening paragraph should leap off the page for anyone serious about leadership.

Don’t be in the business of business – be in the business of leadership. At its essence, leadership is the business of defining and articulating vision (why), and then aligning people (who) with the said vision – these are the two key strategic elements of leadership (leadership + purpose + people = culture). The tactical elements of leadership (what and how) are best accomplished only after the “why” is clearly understood, and the “who” is soundly in place. A business that pursues a purpose-driven culture of leadership will simply outperform a business that focuses solely on profit.

Much like an algebraic formula, there is a correct order of operation for leadership as well.  I developed the following order of operation more than 20 years ago, and it’s as powerfully accurate today as it was then:

Leadership isn’t easy, but it also need not be overly complex – it’s bad leaders who complicate things with poor understanding and flawed delivery. Great leaders, on the other hand, are gifted at simplifying everything around them – they are focused on the right things, which allows their processes to fuel creativity and innovation not stifle them. It’s the efficiency and effectiveness of simplification that attracts and develops talent and builds healthy cultures.

My advice is simple – While successful leaders address all four areas, the best leaders always start with why followed very closely by who. Then, and only then, do they work on the design of what and how? Thoughts?