Start with WHY for Leaders

Start with this post: Start with WHY (Your Motivation)
Related 1: Welcome to the Agile Leadership Practice
Related 2: Agile Leadership: Values & Pitfalls


If you ask two people who do the same job, what they do for a living and you get these two answers:

  1. “I have a passion for advancing the pace of research to help humans live healthier, happier and more productive lives.”
  2. “I sell microscopes to researchers.”

Which person would you like to get to know more? They both sell microscopes, but with the first person, you understand their motivation. Once you know a person’s motivation (their WHY), you have context for WHAT they do and HOW they do it. Essentially, the WHY is emotional, don’t try to make it anything much more than that.

The key to successful leadership is to find ways to inspire people to follow a shared WHY. Having a clear vision that resonates with others is much more effective than intimidation. That vision must then be effectively communicated and executed. The WHY must be authentic, consistent and always reflected in HOW you do WHAT you do.

Remember: Your WHY should rarely change. The WHY and your HOW are what you always come back to when making sure that you are heading in the right direction.

Operating Model

But there is also more to it than what Simon’s book covers. You need to focus the organization, so everyone knows what the next goal is. That is what I call the One Thing. It’s imperative to provide an operating model, so everyone knows how to make good decisions. Despite Simon’s insistence that if everyone shares your WHY they will make the right decision, it is just not true. You don’t want half of your company working on the Apple Watch to challenge the status quo while the other half of the company is working on the Apple Car leaving nobody to work on the iPhone or the Mac desktop computer. More on The One Thing and setting up an Operating Model in a future post.


Washington commanded great loyalty because his HOW and WHAT supported his WHY and built trust

People must believe in the WHY. Trust and shared values are critical to lasting success. There is no substitute for that. Loyalty also comes from using every outcome as a learning opportunity and not a tool to praise some and punish others. One good example is SF 49rs 2017 season as recounted in this Freakonomics episode (start at 26min 38sec).

My favorite example of putting together a community that shares the same WHY, HOW and WHAT is this job posting that I keep on my wall as inspiration: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success.” It is what Ernest Shackleton the English explorer posted in the newspaper to recruit the crew for his attempt to cross Antarctica by sea. A disastrous trip lasting months, in the bitter cold with little food. Even though almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, everyone came back safely. Everyone shared the same vision and values because those are the only people who would apply to such a job posting. Are your job postings that clear?

The steps are simple, and I have used them with a lot of success:

  1. Surround yourself with people who share the same WHY. My favored methodology for hiring team members is outlined in Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. My favorite method for finding customers who share our WHY is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. (I will cover both books in future posts.)
  2. Find People who understand HOW to make your WHY real and compensate for weaknesses in the organization. Remember we are stronger together!
  3. Let your organization participate in your WHAT, don’t just tell them what to do. You did not bring smart, passionate and devoted people into the fold so you could tell them what to do. When they live the HOW and actively participate in the WHAT, that is the point at which they have a vested interest in success. This is further clarified in the Agile Manifesto which can be adapted as part of an organization’s operating model. It is not just for software development! (Will also cover this in the future too.)

At this point, you have a good start on synthesizing your WHY (your motivation) and putting together your HOW (your values). Where do you need to do next?

Also Check out: The Most Influential Book You Never Heard Of


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