990 words: 5-minute read

This Ted Talk is one of the most watched ever. It’s called How Great Leaders Inspire Action by Simon Sinek.

In it he argues people get inspired not by what you do or how, but why. He suggests you only have one why. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning and drives you forward.

Some may like your why, others won’t. That’s not the point. This is about you being clear about your purpose that goes beyond any one set of results.

If you’re like me and have tried to take Simon’s start with why directive on board, you’ll know it can be tricky. I found myself describing what I do – I coach leadership teams – and how – I have a bespoke 5-phase programme etc. My why eluded me.

Then I asked myself a question:

What do the significant moments in your career mean to you?

I’ve shared my answer below on the off chance you too may be taking Sinek’s advice and searching for your why. You’ll see mine popped out of this look back.

Significant career events

I was once a management accountant.

I prepared monthly accounts and corporate plans for a partnership run by “the tyrant.” He earned this title because of his penchant for lauding those who’d done well and lambasting those who hadn’t.

When, out of fear for their livelihoods, managers rang me at the end of the month to ask if I’d delay costs or bring revenues forward to make their numbers good, and avoid “the tyrant’s” wrath, I felt something profound.

I felt like I was a provider of ammunition (the monthly accounts) in a war I didn’t belong in. Numbers manipulation didn’t seem right or fair to all concerned. In my head this was no way to lead.

I gave up accountancy as a result and moved into leadership development.

My colleagues thought I was mad at the time. Yet this early career switch meant I’ve had the privilege of having real conversations with hundreds of leaders from different sectors about what challenges them. When I say “real” I mean talking about their actual experience of events not the gloss or façade that’s sometimes needed to hide this.

In these conversations three trends stand out:

1. We’re all prone to thinking that’s no longer helpful

Certain assumptions, prevalent in our culture embed themselves in our consciousness as undisputed, taken-for-granted facts. Take “life is a zero-sum game,” “people are intrinsically lazy” and “leadership is all about control” for example. These whirl away in the back of our minds shaping not just how we think about strategic, operational and personal challenges, but how we resolve them too.

The problem is assumptions like these are hidden for the most part. They can become less effective as circumstances change, but we don’t notice this. We develop blind spots as result: we do what we’ve always done because that’s what makes sense to us. What once may have looked like strong leadership – a la “the tyrant” – becomes outdated.

2. Unless we surface hidden assumptions, we can’t change much for long

We fall into the trap of solving the symptoms not the root cause problem.

For example if we assume life is only about winners and losers and people really are lazy so need to be controlled in every case, we can’t solve problems from any other mindset.

If the challenge before us is to (say) increase productivity, solving unproductive behaviour is likely to include financial incentives (to counteract laziness and ensure we win) and tighter rules and controls. However, these tend to have a limited impact and deliver only temporary gains. That’s because the root cause problem – feelings that are inhibiting people’s natural desire to care about what they do and change their own wasteful behaviour – remains intact.

This helps to explain why many change programmes fail to meet expectations and the data on industry, company and team cultures aren’t moving in the right direction. For example trust in leadership is in decline, employees’ level of disengagement remains persistently high and mental stress is rising.

Not to put too fine a point on it, little fundamentally changes when the basic assumptions we operate from remain untouched below the surface. The transformation we seek in performance is held back by the way we think.

3. Less mental noise doesn’t take challenges away, but it radically changes our perceptions of them

It’s easy to get stuck on a train whose cargo is container loads of hidden assumptions. Yet when we put space between ourselves and our trains of thought, we quieten down, be more present and notice our mind’s in-built capacity to say Hey, try this new train and see how it feels.”

This explains why a problem can loom large on one day, and by the next be overcome at the drop of a hat. It points to why challenges we may have been ruminating over for several months suddenly morph into great opportunities.

Take a topic that at one time rarely featured in the business lexicon but is now commonplace – wellbeing.

This can mean something that’s soft and fluffy,” “what holidays, shopping trips or team jollies are about,” ”what bonus schemes produce” or “a complex mental health issue.” It can also appear as a curious puzzle: something that may be hard to define but clear when it’s absent, and integral to great performance not its by-product.

Once I got curious about wellbeing I started to see what it was and how it’s misunderstood. I also realised its potential to help leaders find previously unimaginable answers to challenges like productivity, and many others simultaneously.

Then my why emerged.

From “the tyrant” onwards I’ve been driven by helping leaders create team cultures their people can thrive in rather than get stressed out by. Put in Sinek’s terms:

Imagine a world where our curiosity about what holds the hard challenges in place, ignites our potential to transform them sooner.

What’s your why?

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