Great leadership, like storytelling, answers ‘why’ not ‘how’

Child learning on a computer

When we stop asking “why,” we stop having vision.

Several years ago, I attended a Dave Ramsey EntreLeadership seminar. Ever since then, Dave (or more likely someone on his staff) has been very good about emailing me with business tips and info on his latest offerings. If anything, he’s a good marketer.

Most of the time I ignore his emails (sorry, Dave), but recently I opened one that contained a link to a 100th episode celebration of the EntreLeadership Podcast. Given that I had never listened to episodes 1-99, I thought maybe I should see for myself what the party was all about.

About 32 minutes in, after the obligatory self-congratulation about what a great success EntreLeadership has been, I discovered some golden nuggets from previous podcasts. What caught my attention was a brief clip from Daniel Pink, the author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” (To hear the interview, go to the podcast and then fast-forward to 40:40.)

Pink was being interviewed about leadership, motivation and vision when he made a key point that should be stamped on every communicator’s forehead: Storytelling works best when it answers “why” rather than “how.”

As Pink noted, storytelling has a great deal of persuasive power: “Human beings see the world as a series of episodes, not necessarily as a series of logical propositions contained on a PowerPoint deck.”

I’m sure you’ve sat through your share of underwhelming PowerPoint presentations. Despite all the data presented, they never really get at the heart of the matter. Rarely do they motivate or inspire.

“One of the things I’ve seen in leaders,” Pink said on the podcast, “is that they tend to fixate on the ‘how.’ They give short shrift to the ‘why.’ There is a huge amount of research now showing that if you want to persuade someone, explaining why they are doing it in the first place is unbelievably powerful.”

Further, Pink said, “‘Why’ is connected to vision. If a leader doesn’t know why people are doing something that is evidence that a leader doesn’t have a vision.”

An organization’s vision answers the fundamental question of why it is in business or why it serves its members or the public. One of the best guides to creating a corporate vision remains the classic 1996 Harvard Business Review article by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, “Building Your Company’s Vision.”

As Collins and Porras explain, the core purpose of an organization is its reason for being. “It doesn’t just describe the organization’s output or target customers; it captures the soul of the organization,” they write.

“One powerful method for getting at purpose is the five whys,” Collins and Porras continue. “Start with the descriptive statement We make X products or We deliver X services, and then ask, Why is that important? five times. After a few whys, you’ll find that you’re getting down to the fundamental purpose of the organization.”

We’ve come to expect the best consumer brands to answer “why,” and it seems elementary to us that their advertising should hit on a basic human need for purchasing their product. Why should we buy toothpaste? Because it whitens our teeth. Why should we own a BMW? Because it’s fun to drive.

So why do so many leaders fail the why test? It’s a good question. As communicators, we should always be circling back to the whys and putting less emphasis on the hows. It’s just good storytelling.

Advises Pink: “One of the best things a leader can do this week is have two fewer conversations about how and two more about why. That simple, simple technique can make them more effective leaders.”

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