We often write about the importance of giving direction not instruction when leading. It is the leader’s role to focus on providing clear strategic direction and leave the execution to the team around them. Put simply, leadership is about the WHAT and the WHY, leaving the HOW to others to figure out. Perhaps the easiest way to show why strategic direction is important is to look at the consequences when this doesn’t happen, and I saw the perfect illustration of it on the London Underground recently.

Seeing the full picture

As I stepped into a near-empty carriage on the Tube, I noticed straightway that there were two seats near the door, opposite each other, both carefully upholstered in a different fabric to make them stand out. Printed on the back of each seat was a message.

One read:

Please give up this seat (WHAT)

The other explained:

            Someone may need this seat more (WHY)

Because both seats were unoccupied, I was able to read both and therefore understood clearly the strategic direction being given to passengers. It was left to travellers to decide how and when they might surrender their seat to another, more needy person, but the message was clear.

However, as soon as someone sits in one (or both) of the seats, the direction becomes confusing, or even worse, entirely invisible! If we can see the WHAT without the WHY, or the WHY without the WHAT, we only understand part of the picture. Both are needed to give the full context and to ensure clarity. If only one is clear, it triggers questions and creates ambiguity, which in turn leads to a lack of engagement and ultimately, the message is likely to be entirely ignored.

Consequences of failure

When a leader fails to provide clear strategic direction, the chances of poor execution are greatly increased. In fact, no team can be held responsible for a project failure if they did not understand the WHAT and the WHY from the outset.

In the case of the seats in the Tube carriage, there is a fundamental flaw in the execution at the outset: the message being conveyed is only actually relevant to passengers when the seats are occupied, but because they’re occupied, the message is invisible! If there is a choice of empty places available to everyone, no-one needs to give up their seat. But, as soon as the carriage is busy and all the seats are full (the point at which the message is most pertinent), its purpose is completely lost.  It’s a clear example of the right strategy (to encourage people to give up their seats at busy times) poorly executed.

Ensuring clarity

So what could the leader of this project at Transport for London have done differently to get a better outcome? When setting the strategic direction, they should have emphasised that the problem was most acute during busy times, when seats are occupied and the carriage is crowded (so putting a message on a seat would ensure it couldn’t be read!). With a clearer WHAT and WHY, the team would have worked out that the wall, the window or even the ceiling would be much better places to convey the message to passengers. Their HOW (execution) would have been far more effective and in turn, the strategic direction given to Tube travellers would be much more effective too.

Focus on outcome

Successfully setting out the WHAT and the WHY in leadership ultimately ensures that your team achieves the desired outcome. It may be the case that no two teams would come up with the same HOW, but that isn’t important as long as the goal is reached. In fact, it’s wonderful to see the innovative responses that can arise from the same strategic direction.

Next time you’re briefing your team on a problem or new project, think first about the clarity of the direction you’re giving. Get this right and the rest will follow.

We help leaders hone their skills through leadership development programmes and mentoring, ultimately ensuring that our clients grow Profit and Smiles in their organisation. If you need our support with setting direction for your team, or any other leadership challenges, please get in touch.

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