A Daily Dose of Why

Why Pills2

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.”

Leadership is Simple…


. . . Which is not at all the same as saying it’s easy. But the fact of the matter is, there is a strong tendency among leaders to make their job too complex. It is not hard to see how it happens. Typically as an individual advances through a variety of management roles in an organization, they deal with an increasing number of details, complex variables and layers of “gray” in their decision-making. As challenging as these tasks may be, they also tend to be quantifiable. You can check them off the to do list, and measure the impact of the effort. You can clearly point to what you have accomplished in the last quarter, or last year. In some ways, dealing with quantifiable complexity is easier.

Leadership, at least at it’s most effective, is about the simplicity on the other side of complexity. What, exactly, does that mean? Simon Sinek does a great job of capturing this concept in his Ted Talk on how great leaders inspire action. As Mr. Sinek points out, great leadership is about focusing on the “why”, it is about connecting with people who believe what you believe. Of course, to do that, you have to be really clear on what you believe — and be able to explain it in a sound bite, not a 47-page dissertation. Therein lies the simplicity, and the challenge, of good leadership.

Igniting people’s passion with an inspiring vision, communicating a clear and innovative strategy, building a culture of trust and commitment . . . these leadership responsibilities are all about the why. The simpler and clearer you make these things, the more powerful they become. Unfortunately, they are rarely measurable on a short-term basis. Vision, strategy and culture are about the long term. That may sound well and good, but seriously, (according to that annoying little voice in your head) wouldn’t a real leader be worrying about bigger more complex things than that?!? Nope.

Sure, a leader is responsible for the numbers, but if the vision, strategy and culture are in a good spot, the numbers will be too. Yes, there has to accountability, but if your staff know why they are doing what they are doing, accountability becomes less of a struggle. When people are inspired — which happens when they connect at a gut-deep level with your vision, strategy and culture— they can accomplish amazing things. And here’s your tip for the day: people rarely connect at a gut-deep level with a vision and strategy that takes 15 minutes and 8 qualifiers to explain. Keep it simple! I know it’s hard . . . but you’re a leader, you’re up to the challenge.