Have you ever thought about the difference between instruction and direction? These two words may be found alongside each other in the thesaurus but, when it comes to leadership skills, they mean very different things.

In fact, recognising the difference and knowing when to use one rather than the other is one of the cornerstones of good leadership. While instruction can be very appropriate in management, direction should be the mainstay of leadership.


By way of illustration, let me tell you about my fitness training. This week during one of my workouts I have brought about a flare up of a previous shoulder injury and at the moment it feels quite inflamed and raw.  However, in my training programme today my ‘instruction’ was to be doing lots of heavy deadlifts, well beyond my body weight. Clearly this would put further pressure on my already damaged shoulder, so would not be sensible.

But, because I understand my training goals and objectives (thanks to the excellent leadership skills of my trainer, Tom Dyer), it was easy to see that some lower body exercise could be done that wouldn’t impact my shoulder and still help me further towards achieving my goals. So I decided that 45 minutes on the spin bike would be the best option.

For me, this is a good example of the benefit of giving direction rather than instruction to our teams. If all we do is tell them WHAT needs to be done and HOW, then as soon as there’s a barrier to it being done that way, they are likely to come straight back to us and ask, “What next?”.

To explore this further, let’s take a closer look at the role of WHAT, WHY and HOW in instruction and direction.

  1. WHAT

WHAT is the destination, that is, your goal. Setting this out clearly as a leader, and ensuring that you and your team have clarity and agreement on it, is vital.

This WHAT can be a part of instruction or direction, but when it is combined with WHY, it supercharges your leadership skills, enabling your team to excel.  In fact, I would go as far to say that articulating your WHAT and WHY in a concise and unambiguous way IS your role as leader.

  1. WHY

WHY is your purpose. Having decided upon your destination, aligning with a common purpose is what carries you and your team along your journey together, and keeps you on the right track. If ever the route becomes unclear or you reach a crossroads, your WHY will always ensure that you stay on the right path (as illustrated by my fitness analogy above), it’s your ‘north star’. 

WHAT and WHY can be common denominators in both instruction and direction, although it is possible to issue an instruction without either (“Just do it!”).

  1. HOW

HOW becomes instruction if issued by a manager or leader, where you tell your team how to do what needs to be done. But the true power of HOW lies in the hands of your team. When you provide direction as a leader (WHAT + WHY), your role is then to step back and give your team space to create their own solutions, to decide on the HOW for themselves. By allowing them to take the initiative, safe in the knowledge that they understand the WHAT and the WHY, they will discover their true potential and be able to overcome any obstacle.

So if you want a flourishing team, thriving under your leadership skills, be aware of your level of giving direction vs instruction. If you tend to lean towards the latter, reframe your approach to focus on the WHAT and the WHY and see the positive difference.

As always, if you need help, please get in touch.

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