The Power of “Why”

I keep coming back to this 2009 TED talk by Simon Sinek on the power of “why.” I often find the really smart people I work with jump right into the details: what they’re going to do and how it should be done. I also have found that academic leaders, in particular, frequently begin their communication with statements about problems or deficiencies. I think this is because they spend their careers as scholars identifying problems to solve and challenging one another’s research in order to expose the flaws and make sure it holds up.

Image for blog power of whyHowever, once you move into leadership, the job is different. You need to inspire and motivate the people around you to give their best effort, even when the going gets tough. To do this, it’s important to start with the “why”: Why are we doing this? What will it look like if we are wildly successful? Research shows that a positive and clear articulation of the destination inspires people and makes them work harder. Stating your goals and aspirations in a positive way is much more likely to get your team working enthusiastically, persuade the organization to commit resources, and win support from donors.

I recommend to my clients that in every communication, large or small, internal or external, they zoom out and begin with at least a brief articulation of the “why.” This has several benefits:

  1. Inspires stronger commitment to the task at hand, whether from employees, colleagues, or donors.
  2. Builds team spirit and connectedness among those working toward a common goal.
  3. Helps to resolve disagreements about the details of how to get there.
  4. Gives your team members and supporters the language to be effective ambassadors for your effort.

Here are some examples:

What and how: “We’re trying to improve faculty and student recruitment by doing more outreach to minority populations and by sharing research on implicit bias.”

Why: “We want to live up to our mission by making our campus a place where everyone is able to contribute their best ideas regardless of their background or identity.”

What and how: “We want to increase the number of global experiences for our students by teaching more courses and by creating more exchange programs with international partner institutions.”

Why: “We must prepare our students to operate effectively in a global, interconnected world.”

What: “We will launch a center focused on turning the research discoveries of our faculty and alumni into marketable technologies, and will raise money for an innovation fund to support the development of early stage businesses.”

Why: “We believe the research discoveries of our faculty have the power to change the world, but to realize this promise we must get the research in the hands of people who can use it.”

Oftentimes leaders understand they must start with the big idea when they speak at high-profile events or in their annual letter to their community. But they frequently forget to reinforce the “why” in smaller situations such as meetings with colleagues and staff. Always starting with the “why”—in every opportunity you have to communicate—will make you a more effective leader, will foster stronger support among your colleagues, and will help to build passionate champions for your goals.

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