Earlier today, I attended an awards ceremony for social impact entrepreneurs in Los Angeles. Every single speaker and awardee alluded to their purpose. A few even urged us to find our ‘why’ and share it with the world.
In my coaching and consulting work with nonprofits and change-makers, clients will often share that they need me to help them find a ‘why’ that will help people get what they do.
It’s proliferating all around me, this Cult of Why.
I don’t have epidemiological data to support this, but I’m guessing that this all started with Simon Sinek’s TED Talk called How Great Leaders Inspire Action.
In case you’re not familiar, the talk introduces a simple concept that Sinek calls the Golden Circle. It looks like this:
The ‘Why,’ argues Sinek, lies at the center of leadership and commercial success. He cites Apple as an example. Instead of starting with the ‘how’ or the ‘what,’ in other words instead of trying to sell products based on their utility, Apple ties it all to a singular purpose:
"Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo.We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?"
That makes sense and tracks well. What it misses, however, is the who.
Apple’s purpose and unique mentality sprang from the lived experience of Steve Jobs. Since his passing, the company has issued products that are neat, but I challenge you to argue that they have changed the status quo or been disruptive in any substantial way. So what happened to the company’s ‘why?’
Later in his talk, Sinek cites TiVo as an example of a company that offered a great product, but failed to articulate a compelling ‘why.’ When they went to market, TiVo told the public exactly what they had and how it work. It never caught on. What if, he asks:
. . .they had said, "If you're the kind of person who likes to have total control over every aspect of your life, boy, do we have a product for you. It pauses live TV, skips commercials, memorizes your viewing habits, etc., etc." People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it, and what you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe.
This may be true. But there’s a key difference between the hypothetical TiVo scenario and the Apple example: the TiVo why is marketing spin. The Apple why is a deep purpose that sprang from a single, visionary human. He may have been a jerk, but he was visionary.
Before we get to ‘why,’ we need to examine our ‘who.’
If you go to my website, you’ll find my ‘why’ right on the first page:
...to co-create a more just, vibrant, and equitable world where we treat each other as three dimensional human beings and live in greater connection with ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
It’s not particularly unique. Many others have the same why. Just like many others share Apple’s why of ‘challenging the status quo.’
What makes my why unique is the deep process of becoming that fuels it. Here’s a taste of what went into the journey to my why:
The reason my work resonates with people, to whatever extent that it does, isn’t my why, it’s my who and the deep, sometimes terrifying work I’ve done to discover it.
This is why Sinek’s ‘why’ misses the mark.
Leaders like Steve Jobs and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom Sinek cites in his talk, did not develop their ‘whys’ to gain market share. Their sense of purpose grew from their unique experiences, stories, and exploration of their inner landscape. They grew from deep wounds, healing, and examination of parts of themselves that were shrouded in shadow.
We have to address the who.
And addressing the who, doing that deep inner work, is much, much more challenging than coming up with a why.
I’m guessing that one of the reasons that Sinek’s talk became so popular and the Cult of Why proliferated is that placing why at the center is relatively easy. Making the switch from emphasizing the ‘what’ or ‘how’ to a ‘why’ may require some mental gymnastics and discomfort, but it does not require any deep questioning of your place in the world.
Placing who at the center, however, means that leaders must first journey within themselves to find their unique way of being in the world, own it as a gift, and have the courage to share that gift with others. Then they must articulate that in the form of a ‘why’ that resonates outside of their internal echo chamber.
A bit tougher, right?
And yet anyone who has gone through that process, whether the journey takes them to the pinnacles of entrepreneurial splendor or to a simple life as an accountant in a small town, will tell you that it’s a journey worth taking.
So here’s an invitation: before you jump to developing a snappy ‘why,’ take a beat. Maybe two beats and a few deep breaths. Then ask yourself where that ‘why’ is coming from.
If not, it may be time to journey to the real center of the golden circle, to the who.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.