HOW Leadership: Putin and Xi Show the Limits of this Approach

Dictators, by definition, are HOW leaders. They erect personality cults that showcase them as the man-with-the-plan, the hero with all the answers.

HOW Leadership is seductive. Who doesn’t want people to think of them as heroes and difference-makers? Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping show the limits of this approach.

From my article a few weeks ago, you’ll recall that leaders come in three broad types. WHAT leaders manage their teams to achieve what the boss wants. HOW leaders provide the answers and plans for WHAT leaders to execute. WHY? Leaders (TM) provide guidance and purpose so that their subordinates can take initiative, develop ideas, and take the organization to new heights.


As Russia’s invasion enters its second phase, having failed to seize Kyiv and overthrow Ukraine’s government, Putin’s legions struggle against the mud, stubborn resistance, poor leadership, and inadequate logistics. Putin, Russia’s HOW leader, freebased his own gunpowder for so long that he believed Ukrainians would welcome his invasion as liberation. He’s surrounded himself with cronies and sycophants who owe him their lives and fortunes and thus won’t challenge his fantasies.

In China, the Shanghai lockdown of more than 25 million people continues as Xi Jinping stakes his legitimacy on a zero-COVID policy. Over 370 million Chinese face movement restrictions, more than the entire United States population. The virus, however, is evolving much faster than China’s policies — they are fighting a 2022 virus with 2020 measures.


Dictators, by definition, are HOW leaders. They erect personality cults that showcase them as the man-with-the-plan, the hero with all the answers. This approach also means that they have a tough time adapting to new circumstances or changing their policies in the face of new evidence. They tend to surround themselves with lackeys and goofballs because competence and independent thinking threaten the HOW leader’s hold on power.

The inherent contradiction to HOW leadership is that by centralizing decisions, inhaling their own gas, and preventing the rise of others, they limit the flow of information, ideas, and initiative vital for learning and growth.

Where do the new ideas arise in your business? When is the last time one of your subordinates challenged your thinking or proposed a new approach? When you talk about your business to the press or a colleague, do you show off the achievements of your employees or humble-brag about how I did it?


For CEOs and owners, Becoming a WHY? Leader (TM) is the alternative to the self-inflicted limits of HOW leadership. If you want true bench strength and an Inspiring Culture (TM) to take your business to new heights, you need your subordinates to become WHY? Leaders, too.

What are you doing to develop WHY? Leaders (TM) in your organization?

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