The First Question a Leader Must Answer


It’s the first question a leader must answer.

This lesson was brought home to me as I was coaching my youngest son in baseball.

Throughout the game, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated as I kept hollering for him to “back up the pitcher.”  I didn’t understand why I had to keep getting on him for it.

After the game, as we were driving home, he asked me what I meant by ‘back up the pitcher?”

My heart sank. I had assumed that he knew what I meant.  I knew what it was that I wanted, but I hadn’t communicated the what in a way that he could understand.

It’s an often overlooked mistake that leaders make with their teams:

  • What should we do today/ this week/ this quarter/ this year?
  • What is our corporate Vision?
  • What is YOUR Vision?
  • What should I do to align my work with your Vision?

By nature, people want to work for more than just a paycheck, they want to know that what they do matters, and answering that question is one of the most critical functions of a leader.  When the question goes unanswered, even the best employees disengage.

For many employees, a leaders ability to communicate the what is all they need.  It gives them permission to figure out the how.

And, it’s a question that leaders must not only answer for their employees, but also for their managers.  If a leader is constantly reacting, and can’t communicate what their team is working on (or, if what they’re working on seems to change every week), then someone else will eventually take the steering wheel.

If a leader cannot articulate the what, then they create a culture of reaction where much is done, but little is accomplished.  Their direct reports and peers see them continually prioritizing based on orders from above, while those above see them continually reprioritizing based on feedback from below.  It leads to a culture of chaos.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, the late-great Stephen Covey identifies the first habit of successful people as being proactive.  The first step to being proactive is having a clear Vision for what it is that one plans on accomplishing.

Covey’s second habit is to begin with the end in mind.  After identifying what the end looks like, they must then build the best path to get there, then  communicate what must be done so that their team’s activities are aligned.

Like bees, people smell fear.  They sense unpreparedness.  And they can identify a leader who doesn’t have a Vision and doesn’t know what must done.

As a leader, one of the best ways to ensure that you are communicating the what is by creating clear goals.

Next week, I’ll share 5 ways that leaders can communicate the what through goal setting!

  • Jen Thorman

    I agree with this 100%! Years ago, I was hired as the Director of Development for the Bioethics Center at a university. This was a new position and I came in at a time when there was an interim VP of Advancement. He was great at what he did but didn’t really communicate to me what I should do. I was left to look at what others were doing and try to do something similar. 6 months later, when they did hire a VP of Advancement, I thought then I would receive some better communication, but sadly I did not. He never communicated expectations or a vision. I would meet with him twice a month and tell him what I was doing and he would say “sounds good”. I tried digging to get some clear expectations and feedback and was given a very vague answer. It left me feeling very uneasy to not know what the goals were and if I was doing the right things to hit them. Being in the dark at work is not a great place to be.

    I am so thankful that here at SEI, everything is clearly communicated! I always know what is expected and what I need to do to get there and be successful. That helps me sleep easy at night!