How is as at Least as Important as What

A great mentor of mine was moving on to an opportunity at another company. I went to wish him well and remind him how much his leadership and example meant to me. I knew we’d keep in touch so it was not terribly sentimental. That was, until he paid me one of the greatest compliments I ever received:

“Many people are good at the what, but you’re also great about how we do things. Someone who cares about how we do things is so valuable and rare today. Don’t ever lose that.”

I say this not to boast, but because he was right about it being rare and valuable today. Look around you: unless you’re in a particularly noble field (though I’ve learned, even noble fields have their issues), chances are fewer people care about how, than what.

One Arm, Two Hans, Open and Fist

Why is that? Why have we lost the emphasis on how in exchange for what? Don’t we realize that how we accomplish a goal impacts the sustainability of the results?

After all, it’s easy to accomplish short term “whats” when you don’t care how. You can deliver a product in no time, if you don’t care about quality. The project will get out the door in no time, if you don’t care how employees are treated. You can get students to ace an exam if you don’t care that they cheated. At the end of the day, isn’t this loss of care for how at the root of so many problems?

Whether I am as good at “the how” as my mentor suggested, I hope to one day prove. But I am certain he was correct about the lack of this concern today in many fields. So please, care as much about “the How” as “the What”. You’ll make me, my mentor and your stakeholders proud.

Question: What other ways have you seen caring about what over how hurt

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Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

4 thoughts on “How is as at Least as Important as What”

  1. Ben,

    Great post. I’m amazed and saddened by how many managers and leaders forget the “how”. They don’t realize that the “what” will be so much better if the “how” is given more attention.  

  2. This is a great reminder.  The difficulty is how do you focus on the how when what you are measured on is how quickly you do the what.  The how of servant leadership can be time consuming because caring for and involving others takes time, energy and dedication.  As managers, we need to find ways to measure an employees performance based upon how they accomplish tasks equal to or above what they accomplish.

    1. I think you highlight a great part of the challenge in servant leadership. The emphasis on near-term results, particularly in publicly held companies, often comes at the expense of “how” the work is done. As a result, sustainability is lost. While this makes it more common to see servant leadership in privately held companies, public companies have proven success wit servant leadership as well (see Herman Miller, Southwest Airlines and Zappos.com – now owned by Amazon.com, to name a few). 

      Thanks for sharing Ryan.

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