Reflections on Leadership: Why?
One of the more frustrating experiences of parenthood is when a child discovers the word why. When that happens, there is a transformation in the relationship between parent and child. The change from expected obedience to reasoning means that everything becomes less efficient. Things that happened quickly must now be explained, sometimes in painful detail. Eventually this leads to a moment of frustration when, after many attempts to explain why something must be done, the words are uttered that you swore as a young person you would never say to your child, “Because I said so!” When my now grown children experienced that moment with our grandchildren, it was a revelation of sorts. “It was an amazing moment, Dad. I opened my mouth and somehow my father came out.” Why is a simple word that changes everything.
Much has been said about the generational differences in the workforce and how leaders must adjust their style to the worldview of each generation. One of these major adjustments is related to the question, Why? It seems that for each succeeding generation the question of why becomes more important. In order to get someone’s enthusiastic commitment we must address the question of why something must be done. For a leader, this means that position power has just been taken down several notches, and the ability to persuade takes on greater importance.
In his book, “Start with Why”, Simon Sinek talks about how great organizations inspire their customers and their workforce by addressing the question of why. Using examples from the business world like Apple, Southwest Airlines, Microsoft, Harley Davidson, WalMart, General Motors and Toyota, and individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Wright brothers, Sinek describes how a shared vision is the foundation of great leadership. He also describes what happens when leaders and the organizations become more preoccupied with how things are done than why, and the predictable decline in results when that inspiration is lost. Sinek claims that great organizations are built around the answer to the question why, which shapes the culture of and the behavior of the people who work there.
The understanding of purpose and clarity of mission are essential foundations in a world that no longer regards leaders as smart enough or principled enough to follow blindly. Here are a few of the why questions that leaders must address when trying to engage a workforce from the Baby Boomers to Millennials.
Why was the organization founded?
Why does it exist now and what is its purpose in society?
Tell me why working here will make the world a better place?
Why do people who work here find the experience to be personally satisfying?
Why is my work important here? Will I get a sense of meaning and purpose from my work?
Of all the places to work in the world, why should I choose to work here?
The list could go on and on.
The point is that leaders need to appreciate that an increasing number of people want more from their work than a purely economic exchange. Without an expressed purpose that embraces a higher calling, everything is reduced to a transaction - What do I have to give to satisfy the job requirements, and what do I get financially for that effort? These are not unimportant considerations, but they are not the source of inspiration and commitment that drives superior performance.
The impact of a clear sense of purpose is illustrated in an old story about someone who happens to encounter three stone masons working on a construction project. He asks each of them in turn the same question, “What are you doing?”, and he gets three different responses. The first mason says he is laying bricks, the second says he is putting up a wall, and the third says that he is building a cathedral. All three are doing the same work, but each has a different understanding of what their work means. The implication is that the third mason will see the work as more meaningful, and will be more concerned about quality because the larger purpose is clear. Building a Cathedral is a reason to get up in the morning. Putting one stone on top of another is drudgery.
Putting this example in the language of building something to serve seniors in the work of Presbyterian Senior Living might sound like this:
I am building a wall in a building
I am building an apartment for a senior to live in safety and security.
I am building a place where seniors can receive services and age in place.
I am building a community where seniors will be loved, respected, and form relationships to experience a full and rewarding life well into their later years.
Which one of these statements is the most likely to provide inspiration and a connection between daily work and a larger purpose in life?
Achieving success requires more than answering the question why. Excellence also requires addressing the question of how something is done and giving attention to the many details that separate adequate service from superior performance. In some respects the relationship between the question of why and how is like the Biblical description of the relationship between faith and works in the Book of James. Faith without works (belief without action) is dead. Works without faith (action without understanding) is futile. Faith is the why. Works is the how.
Clearly understanding and doing the tasks that are required every day is important, but cannot sustain superior performance over time. When a person’s work is disconnected from a compelling reason routine and boredom will eventually set in. Being inspired by the vision of why something is important without the attention to detail that creates superior outcomes is hollow. Good intentions alone are rarely translated into tangible results.
Successful leaders know that sustained high performance in any endeavor requires equal attention to both questions. Leaders who start with Why and follow with How are likely to experience the joy of leading a high performing team.
About Steve Proctor
As the now-retired CEO of Presbyterian Senior Living, Mr. Proctor was employed by PSL from 1971 - 2019. He is a Registered Nurse and Licensed Nursing Home Administrator with a BS degree in business administration from Elizabethtown College. He also holds a master’s degree in gerontology from the University of North Texas. Before becoming CEO, Mr. Proctor was Chief Operating Officer for 16 years. In addition, he has served as a Board member and is a Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Non-Profit Homes for the Aging (“PANPHA”). In November of 1995, the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (“AAHSA”), now known as LeadingAge, recognized Mr. Proctor’s proven leadership and accomplishments by electing him to serve as Chair of its national board of directors. He served as Chair-elect in 1996 and 1997, as Chair in 1998 and 1999, and as past-Chair in 2000 and 2001. He has also served as chair of the International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
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