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Yesterday I talked about the skills required to be an Excellent Leader, how balancing Decisiveness with Empowerment is the most effective way to inspire people towards focused action.

As I was writing yesterday’s post, I also started to think of the lessons I shared a few weeks ago, especially point #4 in the Rules of Engagement. If ‘Why’ is more important than ‘How,’ is more important than ‘What,’ then surely this ought to play out within existing business relationships. Specifically, an effective leader who successfully balances Decisiveness with Empowerment ought to have a clear sense of this chain of command, as clear as the law of gravity.

Today I’d like to share a few observations on the current state of Leadership, and how can we all take greater responsibility for its development in others and ourselves.

Place yourself in the shoes of someone who has just begun their career, or even a new entry-level job. Your ‘Why,’ ‘How,’ and ‘What’ are immediate and tangible. “In this job we do this, and we do it this way…” At this stage, the ‘Why’ is implied: “So you can keep your job.”

Can anyone ever hope to thrive as a Leader in this role? If you haven’t already, check out Simon Sinek’s video Start with Why. When we were just entering the workforce, how many of us started with ‘Why?’ Not many of us, unfortunately, and our senses of ‘How’ and ‘What’ were still immature. Did you ever question the ‘How’ and ‘What?’ If you’re anything like me… Constantly.

Now fast-forward a few years. You’re in a management role, responsible for the ‘How’ of a dozen people who work on your team. You train your team members ‘What’ is important and steer them to safety if they spend too much time with some ‘What’ that’s irrelevant. Your greatest concern? “How can I help my team be more effective, more successful, and more confident, in their work?” The rarified air of the ‘Why’ you leave to your superiors. They’re charting the course of the company as a whole, your role is to make your team the best it can be.

Yet once again, this is no way to lead. If we spend all day teaching ‘How’ but never share our vision of ‘Why,’ our team is doomed to mediocrity. People want to be inspired, they want their lives to have meaning and purpose. ‘How’ can briefly excite and ‘What’ can only stimulate, and we need a continuous injection of both at the right times to keep us moving forward in the right direction. If you don’t share your ‘Why’ and you falter even once on the ‘How’ or ‘What,’ the damage to your team will be insidious and irreparable. A job is not a math problem we complete in an exercise book. Anyone who attempts to reduce a job to a list of ‘How’ bullet points is asking for trouble.

At long last you reach the ‘Why!’ Finally, in a senior management role, now you have the resources and stability to consider the deeper questions, the direction of your career and your work. So this is what Leadership feels like!

Time out: This is not Leadership, and this progression from ‘What’ to ‘How’ and only much later to ‘Why’ will never produce effective Leaders. At this point we can make two key observations:

  1. Effective Leaders balance Decisiveness and Empowerment because they start with ‘Why.’ They take an extremely long-term approach, which includes the lives and goals of all the people they work with. Their ‘Why’ has deep roots, and goes far beyond the immediately tangible or quantifiable. They seek to bring out the very best in each member of their team. If their work was an airplane, Decisiveness and Empowerment would be the two jet engines on either wing, and ‘Why’ would be the rudder.
  2. If we want to be effective Leaders, we need to begin asking ‘Why,’ much, much earlier in our careers. If our current ‘What’ or ‘How’ doesn’t satisfy, speak up and demand a change. But if we’ve never learned to ask ‘Why,’ then we need to begin now. If your company’s ‘Why’ doesn’t line up with your personal ‘Why,’ that’s totally fine. Only when we never develop our own personal ‘Why’ does the tragic sequence above unfold.

Which leads to our most important point: we cannot wait until those around us are just starting their careers. If they haven’t formed their own personal ‘Why’ by this point, training them to do so will take a long time with no lack of challenges to overcome. But what does it look like if we start much earlier?

I related in an earlier post the challenges I encountered while practicing the French Horn. A few weeks prior to the episode I shared, I was playing a new piece which my instructor compared to Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. The reverent way in which she compared it to Rachmaninoff’s piece motivated me to listen to a vinyl recording in the library… after which I played it non-stop for the next six months. Every time I hear it, even now more than ten years later, it brings tears to my eyes.

That would have served quite well as my ‘Why’ for music. This is music that we need to share with our children before they can understand what it is. But this is not just about music. At a much deeper level it is about Leadership and becoming who we were created to be. It is about fulfilling our mission, our life’s purpose. No one can choose it for us, but as members of a community we can guide those less experienced to positive examples of ‘Why’ that have inspired us to change.

This is the real answer to the question posed in the title. Being a Leader is the only way to live a full life. It is the only way to inspire others. And it is the only way to develop ‘How’ and ‘What’ to their fullest potential.


You may ask, ‘How’ can I possibly follow up an exploration of the meaning of life with a simple recipe? If you want to inspire others to care for the earth and appreciate the food that helps us ask ‘Why’ in the first place, you need a meal that does far more than satisfy our base hunger. It has to nourish us deeply, and it has to be transcendent. Everyone has their favorite, and here is one of mine. Enjoy!

Again my deepest thanks to Simon Sinek for the inspiration.