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The Straight A’s of Intentional Leadership

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The Scenario: 

Vera and Tam have just left their manager Walt’s office.

“Did you get what Walt wants us to do?” Vera asked.

“Nope, as usual. We must have asked him five times to explain what he wanted and why it was important. Just got word salad. Again.”

“And were we supposed to do something? He just kept saying ‘the team’. That could be any of several of us. Are we supposed to communicate it out to everyone else?”

Tam smirked. “Then he launches into a diatribe of how we’re supposed to do our jobs. And I’ve got no idea not only of what he wants but when he wants it by, or even how to prioritize it with the 30 other things on my to-do list.”

Vera nodded her head. “You know how it is, he blathers for a while then forgets he even asked for something. Just stay low and do nothing, this too shall pass.”

“Agreed,” Tam said as he pushed the elevator button. “Thai for lunch?”

“Yup, then it’s back to getting real work done,” Vera said as the elevator doors opened.

The Message:

You may have been in Vera or Tam’s situation; a leader who isn’t clear on what he or she expects followers to do, why it’s important, appropriate advice on how to execute, when it needs to be done, or who is expected to do it. Worse still, perhaps you recognize some of yourself in Walt; a leader who gives fuzzy direction and leaves his followers wondering what in the heck he is talking about.

Through the years I’ve made many mistakes with how I lead others; either being overly prescriptive and turning followers into errand runners or being so vague that followers couldn’t pin me down on what was needed. I’ve learned that good leadership means ensuring clarity on why, what, how, who, and when and ensuring you as the leader don’t over- or under-function in how you lead followers. To that end, I have developed a simple rule I call The Straight A’s of Intentional Leadership, as follows:

Articulate the Why
Align on the What
Advise on the How
Hold Accountable the Who
Agree on the When

Following the straight A rule helps ensure leaders and followers understand why something is important to do, what needs to be done, what constraints need to be considered during execution, who needs to do it, and when it needs to be done. Embracing the straight A rule won’t guarantee great leadership skills, but it sure as shootin’ will help the leader be a better leader and scale up into an intentional leader of leaders.

Interested? Read on for a more thorough explanation of each:

  1. Articulate the Why – Followers want to know that they are spending time on something important. Being clear and precise as to why something needs to be done, the positive impacts of doing it, and the consequences of not doing it are crucial to getting buy-in. Skipping this step or assuming the why is clear to followers will make this a tougher slog for both you and the followers, particularly if tight deadlines accompany the ask.
  2. Align on the What – Clear understanding on what the “done” needs to look like is crucial for followers to internalize what the deliverable expectations are. It’s important to be as quantitative as possible and it’s certainly within bounds to share examples if applicable. It’s important to be collaborative and not dictatorial; if followers have an opportunity to influence the deliverable, then they are more likely to own it.
  3. Advise on the How – Many leaders are in their position because they have done the job their followers are now doing. Coupled with that experience comes a desire to want followers to do things the way the leader has done it or thinks it should be done. Leaders need to throttle how directive they are with the how considering the following:
    1. More experienced followers will generally need less direction; less experienced followers will most likely need more direction.
    2. If there are policy, regulatory, or legal constraints dictating why something has to be done a certain way, then the leader needs to ensure the follower understands the constraints and adheres to them.
    3. When providing advice to a follower on the how, ensure that it’s clear you are giving advice and that the follower has the option to accept the advice on the how, providing the what and when needs are met.
  4. Hold Accountable the Who – Having singularly-named persons accountable for delivery is paramount to ensuring things get done. Putting multiple names or “the team” as the person accountable makes it more likely that things won’t get done because it’s too easy to assume someone else is working on them. If you do need to put multiple names on a deliverable, I like to bold the person primarily accountable for delivery so even if there are multiple people named to work on something, one person is accountable for the resulting deliverable.
  5. Agree on the When – Ideally, the accountable followers will set a due date for the deliverable. Many times, though, a date is coming either from above or from a customer. When that happens, the leader should provide guidance to followers:
    1. Ensure clarity on the due date expectation and the practical consequences of not hitting the due date.
    2. Provide guidance on priority relative to other priorities the followers are working to. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority :-p.
    3. Give the followers an opportunity to assess the work involved and come back to you with what they need to meet the due date.
    4. If the due date is truly impossible to achieve, instruct followers to provide what, if anything, can be done by the due date and an alternate plan to meet the what.

The Consequences:  Ignoring the 5 A’s when leading followers can mean the following:

Missed or delayed dates – Misaligned expectations on the five A’s can lead to deliverables that are late, not done at all, or need rework to meet the need.

Follower frustration – Followers will get frustrated with a leader who doesn’t provide clarity on the five A’s. While it’s incumbent on the follower to ask questions if unclear, the leaders should be proactive in providing clarity in the first place.

Poor leader work/life balance – Deliverables missed by followers could spell late nights for the leader to make up for any expectation shortfall.

The Next Steps: 

Next time you have a deliverable needing to be done by followers:

  1. Write out an articulated why statement, including the consequences if not done.
  2. Have a picture in your mind (or better yet, a sample) of what the deliverable needs to look like.
  3. Provide any guidance on how the deliverable needs to be produced, putting particular focus on legal, regulatory, or policy factors affecting delivery.
  4. Be clear on who should own the deliverable.
  5. Communicate any date expectations and give the accountable owner an opportunity to understand the work and what can be achieved by the due date.

Want to dig deeper? See more in my book Straight A's - Five Proven Steps to Empower your Team available on Amazon. 

Posted on: September 19, 2022 12:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (20)

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Dear Lonny.
The topic that you brought to our reflection and debate was very interesting.
Thanks for sharing and for your tips on: "Next time you have a deliverable needing to be done by followers"

I put some reservations about what you called "how". I think it is enough to define what the desired results and standards are.
Allow people to think about how to do it, use their creativity and feel their autonomy

Good Article with great insight

Good article

Love this! May I steal your 5 A's for a presentation?
I knew about the why, what, how, who, when but I really like the way you presented the 5A's!!!

Certainly just give me attribution:-)

I love this suggestion to approaching the 5 whys. This is much less directive.

I like having an easy acronym (5As) to work by which will simplify it. Thanks for sharing, Lonnie!

Mr. Pacelli, you've rocked with this article, putting the finger on the wounds! Congrats and thanks for sharing.

We know who’s not getting the coal in their Christmas stocking . Way to go man and thanks for simplifying things.

A very well explained article. I will definitely apply it and share it with my coworkers.

Nice Article to understand some of the basics that drive Good Governance !

Thank you for sharing this with community.

This article has articulated everything that I see needing to be done on so many teams :) thank you.

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