Knowing why is as important as knowing how

If we are going to be leaders that inspire and encourage others to achieve great things then we first need to start with the ‘why’, says Fiona Hewitt.     

In June at IMNZ, we ran an Open House speaker series where we had a mix of social entrepreneurs, organisations, innovators and professionals speak on their own inspiring stories of transformation and success.

What struck me in those sessions was that regardless of their career, business or particular story; there was one common theme shared by all. That ‘thing’ that they all shared was a strong sense of purpose.

They were all strongly connected to, and could easily articulate, their sense of purpose; they knew why they do what they do each and every day. It was clear that their sense of purpose or their WHY drives their thinking and action.

Having a strong sense of purpose isn’t new, but in these competitive and fast-changing times I wonder if the sense of purpose that connects us to our organisations and to our people gets lost in the constant drive to meet targets, timelines and all the other constant pressures we face in our jobs.

Absolutely as leaders we need to ensure that we are working towards targets, ensuring that there are the necessary skills, resources and necessary business frameworks so that we run viable and sustainable teams. But if we lose sight on a daily basis of our core purpose and connection to our ‘reason for being’ do we then lose the opportunity for our people to have a strong focus and a clear intent that frames everything that we do and makes sense of WHY we do?

Every single presenter at our Open House sessions knew WHY they were in business, WHY they do what they do and WHY what they do matters. Similarly people like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers all started their inspirational journeys with a clear vision, an intent and a WHY.

Simon Sinek; author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action was curious about what set inspirational leaders and organisations apart from others? And as part of this process he discovered that there was a “naturally occurring pattern, grounded in the biology of human decision-making”.

This helped explain and give meaning to why we are inspired by certain people, leaders, messages and organisations and this stemmed from all these people harnessing the power of WHY.

In this book he uses the example of the Wright Brothers. On paper, Orville and Wilbur Wright were not a recipe for success. They had no money, they were not educated and they were not “connected”. One thing they did have though was a strong vision or purpose – they saw that if they could create a machine that could fly they would change the course of the world.

With their strong sense of WHY, they inspired others to follow them and become part of their relentless quest to create a machine that flew and changed the world.
Interestingly enough their closest rival was a gentleman called Samuel Pierpont Langley, who also wanted to create a machine that flew.

Samuel had all the right ingredients for the task; he was intelligent, had a passion for aeronautics, had powerful friends, had access to the necessary funds, and had a great team around him.

He had all that but he did not have a strong sense of purpose or why. His driving purpose was around WHAT creating a “flying machine” would give him –he wanted riches and to be famous.

When the Wright Brothers eventually took flight for the first time – he quit. Instead of using their success to drive him to further improve the experience of flying he walked away.

This would appear to demonstrate his low level of commitment and connection to his sense of purpose of creating a flying machine.

So why the WHY can have such an impactful effect on organisations and team is in the impact and influence it has on the brain. The human brain is broken down into a number of different parts. Our newest brain – Homosapien brain or our neocortex, corresponds with the “what” level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language.

The middle two sections make up our limbic brains and they are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behaviour, all decision-making and it has no capacity for language.

So when we communicate using complex information such as facts, figures, features and benefits we can process the information and understand it. But it doesn’t impact or drive our behaviour or feelings.

But when we communicate, talking directly to the neo-cortex part of the brain that controls behaviour, we give people the opportunity to emotionally connect to what is being said.

This is why the sense of WHY for organisations, and ultimately for our customers, is so important; it allows the opportunity for people to feel, trust and believe in what you are doing or offering; in a way that facts or figures never will.

Getting people to believe in you and what you do will mean that what they do each and every day isn’t just a job, or a pay check. It is a personal mission for them too. Just like the team of people that supported and helped the Wright Brothers achieve the dream of flying.

Of course we have to know what we need to do to succeed as leaders and/or as an organisation as well as knowing how we are going to get there. But if we are going to be leaders that inspire and encourage others to achieve great things then we first need to start with the WHY. 

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