Leader’s Communicate their Organization’s Purpose: Starting with WHY

Kathryn Scanland Leadership

Purpose enables hundreds of employees to make thousands of decisions in unison.  ~Gary Burnison
Purpose seems so obvious, but is it?  I’ve used a TED Talk several times over the past few weeks and this quote reminded me of the point the speaker is driving home.  Simon Sinek makes a presentation entitled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.”  Simon has also authored a book entitled Start with Why.

Simon says he’s codified why some organizations are far more innovative and successful than other organizations.  He describes a very simple concept that separates these organizations from all others with something he calls the Golden Circle.  The circle is divided into three rings.  The center ring is why, the middle ring is how, and the outer ring is what.  He says that when we communicate most of us begin with describing what we do, followed by how, and on the rare occasion we actually make it to the center circle and explain why we do what we do.  The really successful organizations (and leaders) communicate in the reverse order.  They begin with why, then explain how, and finally end with what.

The core of why is being able to both identify and articulate your purpose.  Why you do what you do, many times stated as beliefs or your reason for existence.  For example, below is the description from a prominent Chicago law firm, stated in the typical order of how most leaders and organizations communicate (what, how, why).

We consistently deliver excellence in the most complex and demanding legal matters, both litigation and transactions.  No matter what legal challenge is presented, our powerful combination of experience, professionalism and teamwork will achieve the best possible outcome.  We do not consider the practice of law a job, but rather a calling to serve clients, the profession and the community.

This is the same description with a little editing and in reverse order (why, how, what).

We believe that the practice of law is a calling to serve clients, the profession and the community.  No matter what legal challenge is presented, our powerful combination of experience, professionalism and teamwork will achieve the best possible outcome.  We consistently deliver excellence in the most complex and demanding legal matters, both litigation and transactions.

So, honestly, which law firm would you hire, want to work for, or follow their leaders?  Most of us would likely choose the second one because, as Simon says, our behaviors are driven by the part of our brain that controls our feelings like trust and loyalty.  When we fail to include why in our communication, or if we bury it somewhere behind what and how, we greatly reduce our likelihood to inspire action.
Now, getting back to the quote, imagine an organization where every employee fully understood and embraced its purpose, or why they do what they do.  Can you see how thousands of decisions really could be made in unison?
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Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.

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