Merge's Blog

When it comes to exceptional leadership, the HOW matters more than the WHAT

exceptional leadershipI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — when it comes to exceptional leadership, the HOW matters much much more than the WHAT!

I often get calls or e-mails from our blog readers giving me examples and/or seeking my perspective on situations they are observing or are facing in their workplaces.  With their permission, I often share those situations with all of you if I think there is an opportunity for discussion and for all of us to learn.  In fact, here is one of my most talked-about situations: The piss-off factor. Short-sighted stupid actions by people in management.

It happened again!

In today’s blog post, one of our readers told us about how frustrated she is with a situation in her workplace.  She works for a very large company and had been hearing rumours for several weeks that she was going to be transferred into another job.   Apparently she has some specialized skills that are needed in this new role.  Only one problem, she didn’t really want the new job.  She had been in her current job for only a few months; she enjoyed it, she was learning a lot and excited about new challenges, and quite frankly wanted to stay where she was.  But the rumours persisted.  Keep in mind that these were rumours only; no one in authority had actually spoken to her, and her attempts to question and clarify with her manager and director were met with surprise and silence.

And of course, as some of you might have already guessed, the rumours turned out to be substantiated.  One afternoon, several weeks after the rumours first started floating, her manager congratulated her that she had been hand-selected for this new role.  Never mind that she didn’t want the job — she should be proud and excited that her expertise and experience made her a perfect fit for this position.  She said “Are you asking me, or are you telling me?”  The response: “We strongly recommend that you take this job; besides why wouldn’t you want it, it’s a great opportunity!” Even though the actual conversation was a little longer, this was pretty much the overriding message.

She didn’t think so!

“You know what Merge?” said this person to me.  “The worst part is that no one asked me.  No one even pretended to treat me like an individual who might have preferences and choices  All I am is a pawn on a giant chessboard, moved around at someone else’s whim.  All they had to do was bring me into the process earlier and involve me in the discussion.  The outcome would likely still have been the same (I would have been moved into the new job), but I would have felt a whole lot better about how I was treated.”

“And,” she added.  “To add insult to injury, after telling me how they needed my specialized skills and how I was the perfect person for the role, they didn’t even give me a raise for taking on this new role, which is much more complex and will require much longer hours than in the previous job.”

Exceptional leadership focuses on the HOW

While my conversation with this person was fairly lengthy, there was one phrase that stood out repeatedly during our time on the phone — “All I am is a pawn on someone else’s giant chessboard; no one even pretended to treat me like an individual who has my own dreams and aspirations.”  It once again underlined and emphasized to me that when it comes to exceptional leadership, the HOW is so much more important than the WHAT.

If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, then you know that there is a significant difference between management and leadership: management is WHAT you do, leadership is HOW you do it.  The chess masters at this company knew what they had to do — they had an operational requirement that necessitated this transfer — but they FAILED (big-time) on the how.  So yeah sure, they achieved their objective on the chess board, but they demoralized (what by all definitions is) a star employee.  Do you think that this employee is now looking for another job?  My guess would be “Very likely”.

Well, what do you think?  Curious first to know whether you agree with me?  And then, what could the employee have done to manage the situation more appropriately?  Should management have handled it differently?  Let’s get a dialogue going.  Please add your comments below.


  • While what happened was unfortunate, I think she could have been a little proactive. She should have confirmed the rumours by confronting the decision makers by clearly asking them. Sometimes the rumours may be just “feelers” sent out to learn about the reaction of the employee before actually, and formally, offering the job.Her silence, perhaps, sent them no signals so they continued with the offer. By taking the initiative to tell them of her stance BEFORE their offer could have changed this situation. A change of offer later on would be a loss of face for the management.

  • Sanjay, I think your point is very valid. But to be fair to her, she did try to verify the rumours. She attempted on at least two occasions (that she told me about) to question and clarify with managers who were involved and should have known, but her queries were met with surprise and/or silence. Once all was said and done (and she was in the new job), she actually brought up this lack of communication with a senior manager. His response: I told everyone around the table that this was highly confidential; there was no way you should have even heard a rumour, someone spoke who shouldn’t have. So instead of apologizing for not being open with the employee, the senior manager actually was angry that the rumour mill was active! Talk about not understanding the concept of “open and honest communication”!

  • I agree with you Merge. Rumors are most rampant when the company operates in secrecy. I would not have approached management unless I trusted them. If she had been there for a while, she would be acutely aware of the environment and the way managment handled situations. By showing interest, curiosity or displeasure, she could have jeopardized her job security or, management may have mistaken her queries for actual interest. In my mind,this company does not read the signals of employees(they just don’t get it), or really care about what they think. This company seems to have an inflated ego with respect to how much it means to the employee to work there; it should be the other way around. I would be looking elsewhere, if I were her!


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