What do you think is the single most important question for a business owner or leadership team?
Ask a room of 100 successful executives, and you will get close to 100 different answers. However, you will find that you can boil those responses down to just four one-word questions. “Why?”, “What?”, “How?”, and “Who?”
These questions seem relatively straightforward and, to a degree, uninteresting, but only until you recognize that you have a bias toward one or two of these questions.
When faced with a challenge, your natural default strategy is to find a solution using one or two of these questions.
Here’s the fascinating part: your answer to the original question is driven first and foremost by your primary leadership style.
Let me explain.
The questions leaders ask
Visionaries love to ask “Why?”
Visionaries are drawn to the big picture; they prioritize based on impact and significance. They thrive when addressing the question “why?” They love to drive vision and culture. One of the most common phrases you’ll hear a Visionary say in meetings is, “Why don’t we just …” followed by a new idea or radical simplification of a complex problem.
Of course, Visionaries will paint a somewhat incomplete picture of the “What?” but only because they realize that’s what everyone else needs to consider their idea.
Most Visionaries won’t touch the “How?” with a 10 ft pole. Some may consider the “Who?” but that is typically a learned skill, and it usually only comes after the “Why?” is addressed.
If you want to explore more about Visionaries and the Why question, check out The Synergist and Do Scale by Les McKeown, Start With Why by Simon Sinek, chapter 3 of Built to Last by Jim Collins, and chapter 1 of Rocket Fuel by Gino Wickman and Mark Winters.
An exclusive focus on “Why?” is why many business dreams never become anything but dreams. To become a reality, however, a dream must translate into action. And that’s where we move to the “What?”.
Operators love to ask “What?”
The superpower (and kryptonite) of every Operator is the seemingly endless capacity to get stuff done. Their attention is focused on the quest of “What?”. What do we need to do next? What is our top priority right now? What fire do I need to put out? And, what do I need to do to fix it? This focus on “What?” and the absence of time spent on “Why?” allow Operators to function with superhuman efficiency. At least in the short run.
Operators can be accused (sometimes rightly) by Visionaries of not being strategic enough. Although beneficial at times, heads down can get you caught in the weeds, stuck in a rut, or blown way off course (you pick the metaphor).
Operators rarely slow down enough to consider if they are doing things in the most efficient way possible, and they won’t give a task to someone else unless they absolutely cannot do it themselves.
If you want to explore more about the “What?” check out The Synergist by Les McKeown, the rest of Rocket Fuel, just about any one of Grant Cardone’s early books, chapters 5 and 7 of Built to Last, and chapters 3-6 of Good to Great by Jim Collins. You can also check out Start With Why by Simon Sinek, and check out what he has to say about “How” leaders (I know, Simon and I didn’t get a chance to compare notes before his book was published, so it’s super confusing, but just trust me.)
All this doing can come at a price. Too much focus on massive action, making it happen, and walking through walls to get the job done, will take a physical toll on the Operator and the organization.
Processors love to ask “How?”
The principle conflict between Processors and their Visionary or Operator colleagues is the Processors inexhaustible desire to address “How?” Where Visionaries and Operators want to do the right thing, Processors wish to do it correct. This focus on “How?” enables Processors to build efficient, repeatable, predictable, and ultimately scalable organizations.
Often their goal in asking “How?” is to eliminate risk and ambiguity the arch-nemeses of the Processor. If they know “How?” they believe they can predict the outcomes. While this is mysteriously true in many cases, it is only accurate when “Why?” and “What?” are well understood.
Skipping the “Why?” or the “What?” or both will leave a Processor polishing the Apple on a great idea, scrubbing it away until it rots and decays.
For more on Processors check out The Synergist and Predictable Success by Les McKeown, chapters 3-6 of Great by Choice, and chapters 6-8 of Good to Great by Jim Collins.
When overemphasizing the mechanics of “How?”, Processors become hindered from tapping into the power of people in an organization. And that brings us to the question of “Who?”.
Synergists love to ask “Who?”
Natural Synergists are rare. Most of us have to learn the skillset in the school of hard knocks when we start to realize we don’t have everything figured out. Synergists are the first to recognize and admit they don’t have everything needed to succeed. That’s what drives them to ask the question, “Who?”. Who can help me with this? Who has the skill set we need? Who has the connections we need to break into this space?
The dark side of the style is an underlying individual inadequacy. If unaddressed, it lingers just out of sight and casts a shadow on the Synergists personal effectiveness. For this reason, their skills as individual contributors without a team leave them wanting.
A bias toward “Who?” can also detract from the complex realities of having to get things done. “Who?” centric organizations often suffer from a lack of accountability and can struggle to meet their goals and accomplish their objectives? Lacking the “Why?”, “What?” and “How?” these organizations look more like a country club or social gathering than a well-oiled machine!
Virtually every leadership book out there is designed to encourage Visionary (usually), Operator and Processor leaders to become more Synergistic in their thinking. The best book available is undoubtedly The Synergist by Les McKeown.
I would strongly encourage you to discover your leadership bias. Here are three simple steps you can take to get started.
- Identify your primary leadership style. Are you a Visionary, Operator, Processor, or Synergist? If you don’t already know, you can discover your style for free using this quiz.
- Ask yourself these questions? What question are you drawn to by default? Why is it important to you? How is that helping and/or hurting you?
- Share it with your team. It is so helpful to know how your team members are wired. It enables you to lean into each other’s strengths and steer around each other’s weaknesses.
In next week’s article, I’ll show you the single most important question of all.
Is it yours?