Most of us don’t pursue leadership for the “what” of our jobs . . . meetings, reports, negotiations, meetings, programs, bureaucracy, meetings . . . you get the picture. We pursue leadership for the “why” . . . to change the life of a child, to provide care and dignity to an older adult, to help a family become self-sufficient . . .
If “why” is the thing that drives and energizes us — if it’s the thing that we can’t not do, that draws people to join our team — then it seems reasonable that a big part of our job as leaders is to keep the focus on the “why.” Reasonable . . . yes. Easy . . . well, maybe not so much.
As a general rule, “what” screams much more loudly than “why.” There are rules and expectations, deadlines and competition, best practice and benchmarks. If you’re not careful, your whole focus can get sucked into to the “what,” because that’s what is measured and rewarded (by funders, customers, regulating bodies . . . we even do it to ourselves.) Far too often I’ve seen the “what” — be it a program, an outcome, a system — become the driving factor for an organization, which ultimately boxes them in and limits their potential. Think about it . . . if you were a wagon maker at the turn of the 20th Century, even if you were the #1 wagon maker in the country, your future looked pretty dim. But if your “why” was finding efficient ways to move people from one point to another, the sky was the limit!
Frankly, another reason focusing on the “why” can be difficult for leaders is because it seems so simple. Shouldn’t someone with a leader’s skill and experience be focusing on complex systems, comparative metrics, and competitive value propositions? Talking about the vision and mission, focusing on values and operating principles . . . is that feel-good stuff really the best use of a leader’s time? If you are truly committed to making an impact on your “why” (as opposed to meeting some external force’s picture of success) then the answer is unequivocally yes.
“What-focused” organizations tend to be about incrementally improving the status quo. “Why-focused” organizations challenge themselves to consider entirely new approaches to increase their mission impact. Yes, “what” tasks are included among a leader’s responsibilities. But consider how the focus given to those tasks might change if you started each morning with a daily dose of “why.”