Why leaders need to know why

Most people can tell you what they do and how they do it but few people can tell you why they do it. Herein lies a fatal flaw, because, whether in business, politics, love or faith, people don’t buy into what you do, and how you do it, first and foremost they buy into why you do it.

Take Julius Malema as an example. People don’t follow him because of what he does; they follow him because of why he does it – to upend President Zuma, challenge the status quo and change South Africa. The what and how doesn’t come into it at this stage because he’s focused on a populist capturing of hearts.

Like him or not, he is an incredible marketer who intuitively responds to his target audience’s hopes and desires with a persona and sense of humour that inspires passion in a way that most leaders in South Africa have not. Why? Because they are so focused on the ‘what’ that they forget the starting point and rallying point is why?

American author and leadership researcher Simon Sinek has long since been fascinated by leaders and companies that make the greatest impact – those with the capacity to inspire. He has discovered some remarkable patterns about how they think, act and communicate.

In his wonderfully simple, no frills TED Talk, one of the most popular of all time, and in his best-selling book, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, he explains that most people bypass the why. Try it out. Ask a range of people why they do what they do and they will invariably explain what they do. Yet the why is the kernel of being, surrounded by how and then what – Sinek calls this the Golden Circle.

He explains the why is all about the stuff inside us that addresses purpose, cause and belief. Yet the way that most of us think, act and communicate is from the outside in – from the what to the how to the why. What sets apart inspired leaders and organisations, regardless of their size or type, is that they think, act, and communicate from the inside out. They start with the why – the feelings, gut responses and parts of our brain that don’t verbalise or rationalise.

Sinek offers the example of Martin Luther King. He writes: Why did he lead the Civil Rights Movement? He wasn’t the only man who suffered in pre civil rights America and he certainly wasn’t the only great orator of the day. Why him? Because his why was so powerful and all-consuming, expressed in four words: “I have a dream”.

Sinek goes on to discuss why the aviation-pioneering Wright brothers were able to design an aeroplane in the early 20th century when there were certainly other teams who were far better qualified and funded than them. He writes: The Wright brothers beat them to it. There’s something else at play here. All the great and inspiring leaders and organisations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers – they all think, act, and communicate the exact same way and it’s the complete opposite to everyone else.

The Wright brothers’ story perfectly illustrates this, as Sinek explains. In the early 20th century at the same time as the Wright Brothers were hard at work, developing their flying machine, so too was one Samuel Pierpont Langley, who was given $50,000 by the US War Department to figure out this flying machine.
Money and prestige was no problem. He held a seat at Harvard, worked at the Smithsonian and hired the best minds in the land – in other words, the market conditions were fantastic. Meanwhile, in Dayton, Ohio lived Orville and Wilbur Wright, had very little money and were financing their dream with the proceeds from their bicycle shop.
No one on the Wright brothers’ team had a college education, including Orville and Wilbur, but everyone on the team committed their blood, sweat and tears because they were sold on why Orville and Wilbur were doing this: to change the course of the world.
On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers took flight, leaving Samuel Pierpont Langley in their dust.
However, that’s not the end of it. I think that when one considers what Sinek says, there is so much truth in it but there is also a bit of a paradox and contradiction if we consider a person like Donald Trump who is a great example of a why leader with this anthem Make America Great. But when you try to make sense of his what and how it falls apart.

My point is therefore that there is no doubt about the power of why, and leaders and organisations will battle if they don’t address this first, but at the same time they have to follow the why with a well-conceived, achievable how and what. Returning to Malema again here, my opinion is that while the EFF understands the power of why better than any other political party in South Africa right now, but their longer-term effectiveness will be defined by the how and what of their evolution.

An organisation that has mastered the why, how and what is the All Blacks rugby team – they masterfully combine a depth of passion, skills, organisation, ambition and achievement like few others. They operate from the inside out, and in a leadership context, we can all learn a lot from them.

What South Africans are so desperately looking for right now is strong leadership that can clearly articulate the why, closely followed by the how and what. Leaders who do not command this, will simply perpetuate people breaking into narrow-vision factions instead of coming together to advance nation building and growth.

We cannot afford this. Good people need to draw on the power of people’s reasonableness to be able to recognise and support exemplary leaders who have the best interests of all South Africans at heart. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is one of them. If our country has any chance of achieving political, social and economic stability and emancipation it is an inside out leader.

To listen to Simon’s Sinek’s TED Talk, go to: https://www.ted.com/playlists/171/the_most_popular_talks_of_all