To be a great leader I believe it is vital that the people around you understand the reasoning and motivation behind your actions.
Why “why” is important
In my experience, a leader taking the time to clearly explain their reasoning behind a decision or course of action can be the difference between a task being well-received and motivational for their team or being misunderstood and disempowering. So, I believe a focus on the “Why” is the key to building engagement, motivation and accountability in my role and for those that I lead.
Without this understanding even the most simple interactions can become misaligned. For example, let’s say that during a catch-up with one of my team, they share the details of a problem they are struggling with and my response is “What do you think you should do?”. Without understanding the motivation behind this question, my team member may think “Arrgghh, he thinks I should know what to do and I don’t! I’m in trouble”. Or “Oh great, he has no idea either!?! What a waste of time!”.
In fact, when one of my team shares a problem with me, my primary aim in most cases is to build their confidence and capabilities instead of just solving the problem as quickly as possible. I believe they, much of the time, have the experience and skills to solve their problems on their own. Sometimes I just need to draw their ideas out and encourage them to look at things from another perspective, hence the question. But, if I don’t explain the motivation behind my approach and my belief about their capabilities, I leave the interpretation of my actions to chance.
Just to be clear, once it is out in the open people might not actually agree with the Why behind an action or think that the action is a good way to achieve the Why, but at least they can understand it. Then they can enter into dialogue and, perhaps, suggest a way of achieving the outcome that they are more comfortable with. Even if there is no compromise to be found, by understanding the motivation of the action and having an open discussion, people are often more able to get behind the original idea. This is the “Healthy Conflict” followed by “Disagrees and Commit” from Patrick Lencioni’s seminal book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
A leader’s bigger Whys
While understanding the Why behind a task or action is important, understanding the Why behind someone’s approach to their job can be transformative.
Over the last year, I’ve taken a lot from Simon Sinek’s views on leadership in his books Start With Why and The Leader Eats Last. What he describes as “The Golden Circle” has helped me articulate the beliefs behind how I work and what I do. The core concept is that inspiring leaders are clear about their fundamental aims and beliefs – why they do what they do – rather than being content with describing what they do.
Articulating these underlying principles can help the leader decide how to tackle new challenges and guides them to be more consistent. As they have already codified how they want to act, the path they should take in a new situation can quickly become clear.
For example, last year it was brought to my attention that our Recruitment function found my division difficult to schedule interviews for. They found us unreliable and frustrating. That was personally embarrassing but more importantly hurt our efforts to recruit. The stage was set for me to swoop in, set clearer rules, bang heads together and fix the situation through sheer force of will. Although that might have been expedient, I don’t believe the superhero approach is the right way to lead a healthy organisation in the long-term. Instead, I harp on that I believe the best way to do work is “by engaging people empowered with clear purpose, the freedom to act and a drive to improve”. With that principle in mind, I suggested we create a team to handle interviews for a given week and give them agency over how they meet the requirements of the recruitment process. Whether or not that was the right call, my articulated principle made it clear how I should approach this new challenge. If you’d like to know more about that actually happened, you can read about the result here.
A leader explaining the Why behind how they approach their work may well uncover their philosophy for others to appreciate. Those principles can resonate and when a group of people have shared Whys or principles, they’ll find it more natural and fulfilling to work together. Furthermore, they will also be more able to be deliberate when selecting how to act and what to do, reflecting the common values they hold dear. They’ll have a freedom to act independently, safe in the knowledge they are being true to the principles of the group. In turn, they may also be able to rally others of a similar mind to their cause and grow stronger teams themselves.
Rather than just theorizing that this is a good thing to do, I’m going to share my Whys behind leadership to see if they offer some inspiration for the reader to articulate why they do what they do. If you’d like to read about why I lead how I lead, check out this post.