It doesn’t seem to come naturally for people to take the time to connect deeply with WHY. Despite Simon Sinek‘s best efforts, there’s still a strong urge to jump to WHAT. But there’s so much reward (clarity, engagement, energy, moral authority, creativity…) to be found in the WHY.

“How can you know the ‘why’ if you don’t know the ‘what’?” asked one client recently. Sometimes it helps to think of “why” as “context,” I responded. What’s going on in the world (your world) that calls to you? What is your unique place within this situation? What is the unique place of your place? Rooting your work in context shifts it from being a program or a project to a mission or a quest. There is infinitely more moral authority and inspiration in such grounding. When we skip straight to the “what,” we get objectives like, “Be #1 in our industry.” What else could there be? And that’s a fine goal, but not in itself. Without rootedness in service to some underlying context, it remains a self-centered, empty ego-driven goal. When we start with “why,” however, we get objectives like, “Change the relationship people have with nature.” We get other-centered, service-oriented, deeply meaningful goals that serve as useful guides to subsequent action.

I’m also noticing that the aversion to spending time on “why” is often related to the need to shift from “hero” to “host.” The leader so often believes that he (yes, it’s usually a he in these cases) has to be the hero with all the answers – the “what.” And it becomes self-fulfilling; when the leader always comes with all the answers, everyone else gets disengaged, and so the leader is then truly the only one who’s fully committed, who can ever get to the “what.” But when there’s a shift from hero to host, the leader can create the conditions for people to swim in the “why” for a time and for the “what” to emerge naturally from their collective sensing and wisdom.

In my experience, most people don’t naturally fathom the “why.” It’s not their habit. It doesn’t come easily to them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested in it. They need a guide – a host – to help them discover it. That was my intention in developing this diagram (below) of the layers that emerge from the central question of “why.”

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My sense is that our collective struggle with starting at “why” is a cultural thing rather than a question of human wiring. Our culture hasn’t valued the “why” for centuries – only the “what.” And that’s led to us to the brink of extinction. So our goal (yours and mine!) is to shift the culture, including working one organization at a time.


Thank you again to Neil Davidson for invaluable additions to the model above.

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