Leadership Priorities: How “Why” Eats “How” for Lunch


Awhile back, my invisible mentor, Seth Godin, wrote a post called Form and Function.

In this article, he had a quote which read:

The question that gets asked about technology, the one that is almost always precisely the wrong question is, “How does this advance help our business?

The correct question is, “How does this advance undermine our business model and require us/enable us to build a new one?

Adopting this disruptive perspective is a fundamental difference of what separates someone who wishes to lead, particularly in the strange new economy. Godin’s contrast is helpful, because it helps us remember that a big part of leadership is about asking one question: Why?


Why are we doing things the way we are?
Why are we continuing down this path?
Why should we stay the same — or is it time to change?

As we move into a marketplace which places new and different demands on our businesses (e.g. more customer focus, faster failures, more product launches, etc.) we find that the “same old” thinking isn’t just harmful, but that it’s actually more destructive than it used to be.

If we wish for our business to thrive tomorrow, we must be crystal clear on the WHYs of our behavior today.

But we’re not very good at this, are we?

Obsessed with “How?”

For a long time, leaders and managers have been obsessed with “how.”

  • We’ve developed lists of tasks and we’ve created lengthy job descriptions
  • We’ve built policies, procedures, and protocols
  • We’ve obsessed over process

And we’ve come a long way using this mentality — our operations are incredibly efficient and our companies are lean and mean.

But to a great extent, this relentless focus on “how” has gotten us as far as it can. Now, we must shift to WHY.

3 Reasons for “Why?”

Here are three reasons to make this shift, and how to get started:

1) ‘Why’ Frees Up Our Personal Resources

When we focus on WHY, we can manage by outcomes instead of tasks. This is a crucial activity for creating a strengths-based team, and allows us to truly capitalize on the diversity of our talent and the synergy of teamwork (both things companies talk about a lot, but aren’t very good at operationalizing).

When we lead with WHY, it helps our teams do what they’re good at and frees up our own personal time and energy to focus more on the things we’re best at, creating more value for the organization from two directions.

If you are a leader/manager, this looks like:

Give direct reports the outcome they need to achieve and let them know you don’t care how they get there (of course, you actually have to mean it, too).

Encourage them to use all the creativity and autonomy they can muster to meet that goal.

It hopefully goes without saying that behaviors must match up with laws and organizational values, but beyond that… set the people free to work the way they want! The level of autonomy you can grant is almost only limited by how fearless your organization’s leadership is.

2) ‘Why’ Helps Us Innovate

When we lead with WHY, our teams can be more flexible because we don’t have to legislate every little task. Also, when we are overwhelming clear about why we are doing something, it empowers our teams to not get lost in the mire of purposelessness.

Having to ask “Why are we doing this?” is emotionally draining, and the costs often remain unseen because many people don’t voice this concern — they simply think it. Even unspoken, the damage has the same impact in lost trust and diminished buy-in.

If you are a leader/manager, this looks like:

When people come to you for decisions, always (stop just short of being incredibly annoying–which means you should sound a bit like a broken record) remind people of the mission of your organization/team/department/group. Then, after reminding them, ask them if what they plan to do furthers that mission or not.

If it doesn’t, help them find that conclusion themselves.

If it aligns, tell them to go for it and inform them that next time, before coming to see you, they should run their question through this same filter. Give them permission to execute their ideas without approval if they further the mission.

3) ‘Why’ Boosts Engagement & Passion at Work

Companies from Apple to TOMS to Zappos know that the work we do is rarely about the “thing” we produce.

In these examples:

  • Apple is about simplicity more than technology
  • TOMS is about giving away shoes more than it is about selling them
  • Zappos is about customer service and not about being a “call center”

Making a connection between “work” and “why” isn’t easy for many people, though — which means leaders can play a big part in helping making this connection.

Research is very clear: when we provide people with a connection to “something bigger,” they care more deeply about their work, which makes everything better.

If you are a leader/manager, this looks like:

Constant reminders about the end-user benefit of your product or service. These can be conversations or something more — the only requirement is that they remind employees of the real-life impact their work has.

Some of the best examples I’ve seen are mini-films which depict end users directly experiencing the benefits of the product/service.

When done well these are be quite touching, even after being indoctrinated in a culture for a while. Everyone (everyone you want to hire, anyway) wants to be part of something that’s making a difference in the world. Don’t let your people forget about what your company REALLY does.

So, what are you doing as a leader to look at the strengths of your people in conjunction with the tasks they perform? How are you aligning these? Are you actively incorporating a “Why” mindset over a “How” culture at your organization? What can you do to unshackle your people and their natural strengths to build your bottom-line? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Josh Allan Dykstra is Author, Speaker & Consultant at Strengths Doctors
He is a work revolutionary, an agent of change, a catalyst, and a firestarter
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter  | Web | Blog 

Image Sources: notarybonding.com

2 responses to “Leadership Priorities: How “Why” Eats “How” for Lunch

  1. Pingback: Leadership Priorities: How “Why” Eats “How” for Lunch | Leadership WINS·

  2. Pingback: Why why? Or how?·

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