Thursday, September 3, 2015

Leadership Based on The Why

       During both our recent in-service week and our board retreat, I led everyone through an exercise based on the rather simple yet profoundly revealing idea that drives the thinking in Simon Sinek's Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.
(Here's a link to the book, and here's a link to his TED talk.) The basic premise is this: that those organizations which focus on the why are much more inspiring. As you might expect, Apple and Southwest Airlines are two primary examples. As Sinek repeats several times, people don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. It's because these companies touch something very visceral in us. He captures this notion in what he calls the golden circle. It looks like a three-ring target. At the center is the why. As one moves outward, next comes the how and the what. Sinek argues that too many companies begin with the what and sometimes the how, but that they really aren't sure of the why. Well, at least not in any sense beyond wanting to make a profit, which he calls a result. Here is a set of graphic notes which capture the thinking:

       For the workshop I had small groups create a golden circle for St. John's Episcopal School. People went at it in different ways, but they ended up with a great deal of alignment in the center, albeit with some semantic differences.That, of course, was both affirming and gratifying. It explains quite a bit about our school. It also should help us as we embark on a very intentional marketing campaign. But the real power lay in the conversations. People looked both at our core and at our direction and the relationship between the two. I heard a great deal of important talk about personal and institutional behaviors in light of the why. People had to articulate ideals that they have but seldom express. Yesterday we followed this up with people pairing and sharing on what success looks like when guided by the why.
       The experience has prompted some reflection on leadership. In what I hope is some logical order, here are some of the insights and or confirmations:

  • A leader does not determine the why, at least not when it's truly inspiring. Otherwise, any success can become based on a cult of personality. Think about those institutions driven by a strong personality, which collapsed when that person was no longer there.
  • Instead, I think the leader discovers and believes passionately in the why and articulates it in many ways. The leader embodies it. The buy-in happens not because the leader convinces people, but because the leader has tapped into the why they already embrace.
  • Even when you have people who know the why on some level, they can lose sight of it in daily life. Thus, one of--maybe the--key role(s) of a leader is to keep the why in front of people, as part of both celebrating and correcting.
  • For that reason, leadership does not depend on position, on hierarchy. Anyone who plays the role of trumpeting the why can provide leadership from wherever, whenever, however. Therein lies the power of more distributed leadership.
  • That points to another key role of the leader, one tied to her or his articulating and embodying the way. It's hiring the right people. The people who hear/see/feel the why and clamor to join you.
     Finally, during our board retreat I noticed something which affirmed both Sinek's point and these last few thoughts. During other parts of the day, people often prefaced their comments with phrases such as "If we start with why..." and "When you consider why we..." It does strike something very primal. And it strengthens my belief that a major purpose of education should be to help young people find their meaning and purpose, their personal why. Then they can lead lives based on it. Think about the amazing implications of that for everyone, individually and collectively.


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