Knowing Your Why
“It all starts with clarity. You have to know WHY you do WHAT you do… people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it, so it follows that if you don’t know WHY you do WHAT you do, how will anyone else?”– Simon Sinek, Start With Why
Do you follow what Simon says in the quote above? It’s actually pretty powerful stuff! Knowing why we do what we do is critical to inspire others and have them willingly follow our leadership. In my experience, leaders who are able to articulate their “why” in speeches, board meetings, staff meetings, community events, or just in a one-on-one interaction are those excel most.
To help leaders better communicate their “why,” one of the assignments I have used in a higher education executive leader development program was for participants to write and deliver a very brief 200-300 word presidential inaugural speech to communicate the value of their college or university, and most importantly, help people understand their “why.” When participants delivered their speeches it was awe-inspiring to hear their “why.” They told personal stories about their own experiences and relayed how college had changed their lives in truly amazing ways. Their stories were from the heart and compelled the listeners to want to follow them as leaders.
Let me tell you about my “why.”
When I was about 6 years old, I remember sitting with my dad in the living room. We were watching Richard Nixon on a small, snowy, black and white TV screen. It was just before the 1968 presidential election and Nixon was holding a TV conference. While we were sitting there, my dad turned to me and said, “Wow, you’re growing up so fast! Before you know it, you’ll be going to college.”
That one statement had a profound impact on my life. It became a matter of fact… an expectation that I would go to college. I’m not sure that I knew exactly what college was at 6 years old. But I knew it was important! I knew it was something that my dad expected of me.
As I grew older, I learned that my parents faced barriers that prevented them from going to college. In fact, my mother had received a full scholarship to attend Hamline University, but couldn’t attend. She needed to work to support herself right out of high school. So as the oldest of 5 kids in our family, I felt very much a pioneer as I marched off to St. Olaf College after high school.
While my dad may not remember that comment he made in our small living room in 1968….I do. It has laid the foundation for two core values I hold dear:
- Education has the power to transform our lives
- Seeing possibilities for growth in others and encouraging them is a gift we give to our children, to our students, to our colleagues, to our employees and to our clients.
My work in supporting the development of leaders in higher education springs directly from these values. It gives me the deepest satisfaction because what I do every day supports my “why.”
Have you thought about your “why” recently? If not, I encourage you to do that. Why is it that you do what you do? If you have thought about it, have you told others about your “why?” If not, do that too! It will reconfirm your own commitment to the values that drive what you do each day. And, you might be surprised at how it inspires others.