How Important Is The "HOW" When Improving Leadership Skills


History shows us just how difficult it can be to clearly define what it means to be a great “leader.”

Leadership, it seems, is not black and white, as many “experts” would have us believe, but rather varying shades of grey with a few polka dots thrown into the mix just to further muddy the waters.  (For any manager, the process of improving one's leadership skills is made much more difficult as a result.)

There is a whole industry out there today that wants you to believe that they know the answer, that they hold the key which unlocks the mystical secret called “leadership.” 

You know who these people are, it is unlikely that this is the first piece of “leadership” literature that you have read.  Google “what it takes to be a leader” and you will get 420 million results, many of which start “6 Key to...”, or “8 Traits of ...”, or even “10 Ways To Guarantee...” 

While these types of articles are fantastic sources for tips and nuggets of insight, (hey, we write them too!), many (not ours, of course) are written as if to say, “Do these 5 things and you will become a great leader!”  The problem is that becoming a great leader doesn’t result from WHAT you do, but rather HOW you do it!  

Consider this: If great leadership was the product of what a person does, you would be surrounded in every area of your life by amazing leaders.  However, few of us would make such a claim!  

The simple but hard reality is that even if you do everything the books and articles tell you to do to be recognized as a great leader you won’t necessarily become the trusted and respected leader you desire to be.  


This isn’t to say there will be absolutely no benefit for you to reading these articles as a starting point for your development into becoming a great leader. 

It is to say, though, that the “what” can only take you so far along the “leadership learning curve” before it no longer yields you a return on your efforts to improve and change. 

The reason that “what you do” is such a limited avenue for improvement when it comes to leadership is because the “what” are simply the tools to use.  Like any tool, the value is not in the tool itself but how you use them! (If you don’t agree, simply watch any do-it-yourself home renovation reality TV show and you will see that the quality of tools are irrelevant in the wrong hands.)

To illustrate this, a random article was chosen from a Google search entitled, “5 Characteristics of Being A Great Leader.” In it, the author outlines 5 things that, if embodied, will propel any leader to greatness...or so the article claims

Again, however, the focus is on the “what,”...the tools, the key to good leadership. 

Below, we have selected one identified characteristic for further examination.  From reading it, it should quickly become apparent why relying on the tool instead of how that tool is used in no way guarantees being acknowledged as a great leader.

Leadership Characteristic (Tool): Accountability.

For any leader to successfully lead others, they must demonstrate that they always accept responsibility and accountability for their decisions and actions.  

Accountability is a tool that can be used by anyone in a leadership role to build the trust, respect, and loyalty of their followers.  However, how the tool of accountability is used by a leader will ultimately determine if a leader is held in high esteem or is dismissed as a tragic disappointment.

Positive Use:

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks provides a great example of how accountability, if used in an appropriate way, can build (or in Starbuck’s case, rebuild) trust with employees and customers. 

In 2008, Starbuck’s business success had declined dramatically. Shultz, who had stepped down as CEO previously, returned and took full responsibility for the company’s issues.  He admitted to the entire company that mistakes were made and that the leadership team owned those mistakes. 

Holding himself and his leadership team accountable for the company’s mistakes, he then followed through on his commitment to fixing those mistakes.  

This demonstrated to his employees a high level of trustworthiness and integrity that has helped Starbuck’s regain its position as an industry leader and cultural influence.

Negative Use:

When a person in a leadership role accepts accountability for something negative, they are in effect saying, “I am at fault...I am to blame.”  This can lead to accountability being misused by leaders if it results in them harming others or themselves as a result. 

The following example involves a situation where the accountability taken became a destructive, rather than constructive force for a leader.

In 2012, Tsutomu Omori, an executive at Olympus Corporation, a Japanese manufacturer of cameras and medical equipment, took accountability for a scandal involving the cover-up of over $1.5 billion in losses.  

Omori, who was, upon investigation, never directly linked to the scandal, took his accountability as an executive in the company so seriously that he committed suicide due to the shame that he felt.

Both examples demonstrate business leaders who acknowledged and accepted accountability for the circumstances their companies were facing.  One used the positive power of accountability to rebuild and succeed...the other succumbed to the negative side of accountability and self-destructed.  

Both used the leadership tool, but how they used it yielded very different results.  

Millions of dollars are spent each year trying to develop managers into leaders. Until the focus of this investment goes beyond merely learning what these leadership tools are and is instead placed on how a manager best uses these tools, companies (and the workers they employ) will continue to be disappointed with the limited results they will see..