Want Success? Examine Your Why

Organizations and individuals can achieve breakthrough success by balancing three elements: WHAT they do (results), HOW they do it (strategies/tactics), and WHY they do it (purpose).

Have you ever wondered why two hospitals – similar in size, staff talent, infrastructure, market base, etc. – achieve very different results? Or why two individuals – with almost the same paper qualifications, experience, resources, challenges, etc. – accomplish disparate levels of success?

The answer can be summarized in one word: Purpose.

I’ve given this topic quite a lot of thought in recent years but the following video of a presentation by Simon Sinek, which I watched a few weeks ago, really hit the spot for me.

At TEDxPuget Sound on September 17, 2009, Simon Sinek discussed a model for inspirational leadership, starting with the Golden Circle and the question: "Why?"

A trained ethnographer, Sinek developed a simple yet profound model – “The Golden Circle” – which explains how inspirational leaders and companies achieve sustainable breakthrough success (while others don’t).

'The Golden Circle' by Simon Sinek
Simon Sinek's 'The Golden Circle.'

What

According to Sinek, everyone knows What they do. Hospitals provide a multitude of diagnostic, therapeutic, and other services. Individuals may perform medical, nursing, administrative, quality management, or other roles. These are the things most easily observable by other people.

How

Some people know How they do what they do. A hospital might, for example, develop a unique selling proposition (USP) of “enhancing the patient experience through technology.”” When I was an employee in a hospital, my unique value proposition was to help leaders in the organization make better-informed decisions.

Why

However, Sinek asserts, very few people and organizations know Why they do what they do, i.e. their purpose, cause, or belief – why the organization/individual exists in the first place.

WHAT → How → Why

Sinek argues that most people think, act, and communicate from outside The Golden Circle inward, i.e. WhatHowWhy. Our experience certainly concurs with his view. Most hospital leaders tend to focus their time and energies on What and How, leaving little room to properly consider Why. An organization might have mission, vision, and value statements but this doesn’t necessarily mean it has a Why – these statements are hollow if they fail to be reflected in the organizational leadership and culture.

Like organizations, many persons that I come across are keen to tell me what they do, show off their credentials, and/or emphasize their affiliation with some big-name organization(s). Don’t get me wrong – there is absolutely nothing wrong about communicating the things you do (especially if you do them well) or how you do them – but oftentimes I don’t get a good feel for what drives people, what makes them get out of bed every morning (if anything), what makes them tick. Their life purpose remains some fuzzy amorphous thing.

WHY → How → What

The inspired leaders and organizations work from the inside out, i.e. WhyHowWhat. Their starting point is a core belief/cause/purpose which transcends everything that they do – including How and What. Sinek offers a scientific rationale for this phenomenon: the part of the human brain responsible for decision making and behavior responds to the inside-out (and not the outside-in) communication approach.

'The Golden Circle' compared to the human brain
The WHAT, or outer circle, is compared to the neocortex, where we find rational thought and language. The HOW and WHY circles are compared to the limbic brains, which are responsible for feelings like trust and loyalty and for all human behavior and decision-making. However, the limbic brains do not have a capacity for language.

My thoughts on this matter are more empirically based than neuroscientific. People who have a sense of purpose are passionate about their work, take calculated risks, act with conviction, and are more productive. They are innovative in problem solving and resilient in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Their enthusiasm is not easily emulated (read: hard to fake) by others but, if present, is often contagious. There is usually no need to ask them Why they do what they do because it is self-evident.

It’s not hard to see why organizations and people who start with Why have the potential to be incredibly successful.

Conclusion

Today’s organizations and individuals tend to focus on How and What – operations and results. While these are vital elements of any endeavor, you can achieve breakthrough and sustainable success, differentiate your brand and breed loyalty by also examining your Why.