Leaders must focus on ‘what’ & worry less about the ‘how’

Simon Black – 

So, we are grappling with the idea that conservation professionals need to be more effective at leadership. This demands a whole new set of skills – an almost overwhelming array of strategic, mental, interpersonal and management techniques. What on earth should we work on first?

The emerging consensus over recent decades in discussions about leadership and management behaviour has emphasised that a leader needs to ‘change the way that they lead’. Although the ‘how you do it’ and ‘what you do’ both contribute to effective leadership, the research literature is overwhelmingly focused on the how (Kaiser et al, 2012). Hunt (1991) reviewed the body of published scholarly articles on leadership and estimated that 90% of them were focused on interpersonal processes. It is also most likely that the majority of leadership developers and consultants have a ‘how’ bias, which may influence the debate. The focus is on how you go about things.

But do leaders know ‘what’ to do? Should we agree aims, develop a vision, inspire people, create teams, empower, engage, delegate, set targets, punish, reward, restructure, enable, measure results, improve services, prioritise, plan or problem-solve? What do these things mean? Which things are helpful and which things just cause problems?

Let’s be clear, our own styles and preferences (hows) are different to each member of out team. We need to be able to adapt in order to interrelate with others. But that may just be the icing on the cake. If we don’t get the ‘whats’ right we will only be deluding ourselves.

But as a conservation leader focus first on what needs to be done:

  • providing clarity on purpose
  • developing knowledge (of species, ecosystems, threats and methods)
  • setting useful and meaningful goals
  • building robust and practical plans
  • enabling problem solving and encouraging learning
  • setting clear roles for people
  • manage the work (with the people who do it)
  • adapting plans to suit circumstances

There are also some definite ‘No-No’s’ to avoid. For starters I suggest that you DO NOT do the following things:

  • set targets (numerical targets DO NOT motivate/focus people)   N
  • blame people for mistakes (its not their ‘fault’ 90% of the time)  O
  • manage people (focus on the work instead)                                      |
  • make point-to-point comparisons, like this year v last year          N
    (instead look at the body of data over time).                                     O

Get clarity in what you think and what you say. Be straight with people and don’t play psychological games. Once those things are clear in your ahead, work harder of the softer skills – they will make life easier and more fun.


Black S. A. (2015) A clear purpose is the start point for conservation leadership. Conservation Letters, 8(5), 383–384. doi: 10.1111/conl.12203

Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Does Deming’s ‘System of Profound Knowledge’ Apply to Leaders of Biodiversity Conservation? Open Journal of Leadership  3(2) 53-65. DOI: 10.4236/ojl.2014.32006

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Hunt, J. G. (1991). Leadership: A new synthesis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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