Why Does One Lead?

July 24, 2019 / Travis Tasset

I find this question fascinating, because it can have so many variations: “Why should someone become a leader?” “Why would someone become a leader?” “Why did you become a leader?” “Why does someone decide to lead?”

In his TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” author Simon Sinek codifies what great leaders do to inspire action through his idea that he calls “The Golden Circle.” You can think of three concentric circles with the first innermost circle being the “why.” The second layer and circle is the “how.” The outermost layer of the circle is the “what.” From outside in it is: What we do. How we do it. And why we do it. What, how and why. Sinek explained that great leaders inspire action because they know their “why” and they communicate from this center. They act from this center. They draw and inspire others to join them in their “why.” In essence, people don’t follow others because of what they do or how they do it. People follow others because of why they do it.

We can think of our “why” as being the same as our individual purpose. Or for an organization, the “why” can be seen as your organization’s purpose. As an individual, the question then becomes, “What is my personal purpose?”

This can be a daunting question, and it’s tempting to ask a friend or family member to pinch-hit the answer for you. But no one else can tell you your why, only theirs. You’ll need to determine your why yourself. I’ve always found that one’s purpose is like an onion. There are many layers to it. One specific purpose can be achieved only to reveal another deeper layer to your purpose. For some, their purpose may be to find their purpose. Once that is accomplished then the next layer presents itself.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about people leading “lives of quiet desperation,” which comes from feeling that we are unable to change our own circumstances. That feeling of being stuck is created when we don’t have a clear “why” for what we’re doing or the choices we make. This examination of our own condition can seem like a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. With all of our daily obligations, we tell ourselves we don’t have time for these kinds of indulgences. And in thinking about thinking as an indulgence is where we get it wrong.

In The Apology of Socrates, Plato records Socrates declaring that the unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates meant that literally: he had been exiled and therefore was unable to continue his quest to understand the messages of the Oracle at Delphi. In his now-famous statement, Socrates meant that being unable to continue his investigation was a fate worse than death.

While most of us are unlikely to face the same restrictions on our capacity for intellectual and emotional growth, we should still take to heart Socrates’ message: investigating your “why” is a vital part of human existence. It’s so vital, in fact, that psychiatrist Viktor Frankl developed an entire form of psychotherapy around it. Logotherapy posits that while person has a core essence, it is up to that person to find the best ways to communicate that essence to others and use it to the best of one’s ability.

When you know what your “why” is, you know what your purpose is. When you know what your purpose is, you can develop a strategy to achieve that purpose, and you can budget your time toward implementing that strategy. Once you’ve clarified your purpose and strategy, you’ll also start to be more attuned to opportunities that align with your purpose. You’ll be able to more quickly recognize what fits with your goals and what doesn’t. You’ll be able to invite others to join you in your journey. For anyone who has a tendency to scapegoat or blame others or circumstances, knowing your why will also help you take responsibility for the part you play in creating outcomes, and remain committed to achieving goals even when faced with obstacles.

This is one of the reasons entrepreneurs are evaluated not just by their results, but by their own “why.” Someone who can articulate the real reason they do what they do (their why) is someone who will be able to more easily forge their path and not become discouraged if things don’t go exactly as they hoped. A company led by this kind of person tends to be a better investment than one led by someone who never bothered to figure out their why.

I think there is perhaps no better summary of how – and why – to think about our own “why” than that of psychologist and author Haim G. Ginott, who wrote in Teacher and Child: A Book for Teachers and Parents:

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”