Ask Yourself: What’s Your Why?

Finding our purpose in life will make us better leaders

Back Article Mar 14, 2017 By Tania Fowler

Eric Thomas, a self-described coach and motivational speaker, asks in his motivational video series the thought-provoking question, “What’s your why?” He wants us to think about why we do what we do. What drove you into your chosen field? What’s the why that keeps you resilient through the ups and downs? Here’s a question that cuts to the heart of your why: What do you hope people will say about you when you’re gone?

In January, a group of six business mentors and I facilitated a roundtable with a diverse group of 34 high school students as part of a leadership program I chair with my local Rotary club. We put the question to them: “What’s your why?” We talked about leaving a legacy versus leaving a liability and how resiliency keeps you on the legacy path. These students, extroverts and introverts alike, came alive in discussions with each other about their lives, their futures, their struggles.

The hourglass demands our attention that time is running out, not running on. The older we get, we know that to be true. Young people — as I once was — imagine they have all the time in the world.

It was exciting to watch young people open up and be so willing to share their feelings. One student said, “My why is to prove them wrong, the people who have told me I can’t.” Another said, “My why is to make my family proud.” Another, with tears in her eyes revealed, “My why is to be the first in my family to go to college.” Some were specific: “to be a ‘You-Tuber’ who can influence people,” “to be a social worker and help women have a more equal life,” “to be a star baseball player and use my money to help people be healthier physically,” and “to help young people who have less than me.” Powerful stuff.

I asked them to name leaders they admired, and they responded with Gandhi. What was his purpose, I asked? “To create peace in the world,” the students said. Next came Sojourner Truth. “Freedom” came the response. One student offered his dad as a leader. He shared that his dad had left some liabilities in his life, and was helping his children and others understand how to forge a better path. We asked if he thought his dad’s why was to be an agent of change — a catalyst? “Yes, definitely” came the answer.

Another point that Thomas crystallizes well is how we interpret time; as a clock or as an hourglass. The clock, circular in shape, ticks on infinitely long past when all of us are gone. The hourglass is finite — two triangles meeting at their apexes, sand draining from one into and filling the other. The hourglass demands our attention that time is running out, not running on. The older we get, we know that to be true. Young people — as I once was — imagine they have all the time in the world.

The final part of our student session was to discuss their purpose in the context of an hourglass, which prompted the students to think about what they can do today to make their dreams happen. We wanted them to understand that achieving their true purpose will be an accumulation of actions they choose to start today by focusing their attention on the hourglass.

So what does a session with a bunch of high school kids have to do with leadership and teams?

In the book The Truth About

Leadership, authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner compiled data from over one million responses to their Leadership Practices Inventory. They came away with “10 Truths” that their research fully supports both globally and cross-culturally — I recommend you check them out.

The first truth that you make a difference is about people who believe they can have an impact. You don’t need to know your why to believe you can have an impact, but you will definitely need to know your why to actually have a positive impact on others. The 10th truth is that leadership is an affair of the heart and that truth is all about our purpose. Every leader our students named was in pursuit of answering the passionate why in the affairs of their hearts.

How can you help staff find their purpose? Ask five why’s: Ask someone why they do what they do and wait for the common foggy and unclear answer. Follow that with another simple “why?” and notice that they go a little deeper. Keep asking “why?” until they get to their ah-ha moment, the moment when they nod and say they get it and you can see that they do. Then the conversation can move to the actions needed to focus their resilience and get them to embrace the hourglass outlook.

In meetings, leaders should always frame these sessions within the underlying purpose of the team’s work. The why is the horizon up ahead where the team is headed. In the next meeting you run, remind people about the why of their efforts and notice whether the session becomes more engaged and inspired. Connecting people to the values and dreams that brought them together by asking their why is transformative.

The one cautionary statement I shared with the high school students is this: If you don’t think about your reasons, if you don’t make plans for yourself, someone else is most assuredly waiting in the wings to make a plan for you. You can count on it.

So what’s your why? 

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