Leading With WHY
When working with districts and schools, I’m often asked a question from site leaders something similar to this: “How do you get people to buy in to Professional Learning Communities? How do you get them to see the benefits and support PLCs? The evidence is so clear and convincing!” It is typically followed with an explanation of what has happened, what they have done, and a description of pushback they are receiving. They voice their frustration and often appear to be at their breaking point. They are doing everything they know how to do to persuade them, but they just aren’t gaining any traction.
I recently watched Simon Sinek’s YouTube video titled Start with Why—How Great Leaders Inspire Action. As I watched and listened, it hit me—they are beginning with the What and How, versus beginning with the Why. I reflected upon my own PLC journey and remembered what helped create buy-in and helped the staff get excited. It wasn’t the What or the How of professional learning communities, it was when they embraced the Why.
For those that haven’t read Sinek’s book or watched his video, let me briefly summarize his Golden Circle that incorporates the Why, How, and What.
What are your outcomes? What are your products? What is the result of what you are doing?
What is the process you take? What are the specific actions you take to get your what?
What is your purpose? What is your cause? What do you believe?
Sinek uses Apple to explain the Golden Circle. Apple’s What is the creation of computers and electronics. Apple’s How is the design of their products, which are beautifully designed and easy to use. Apple’s Why is their belief in challenging the status quo. The What of PLC’s would include a common formative assessment plan, identified best practices, and team action plans. The How of PLC’s would include data protocols, prioritizing standards, and responding to students who need additional support. The Why of PLC’s is based upon your personal beliefs, but may include a statement such as, “collaborative processes empower individuals.”
Sinek makes a key statement. He writes, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” Inspiration comes from knowing why you do what you do. It comes from staying true to why you went into education.
We inspire behavior when we keep why we exist at the center of our conversations. We create greater shared ownership when we collectively define our purpose. Conversations around impacting our students and our community create excitement. Conversely, our What and How rarely, if ever, inspire us.
My new and improved response to the site leader’s question now begins with, “Tell them the Why!” Why does your school exist? Why are you getting up every day and coming to work? Why do Professional Learning Communities work? Why is it so important to you? Why do you want them to embrace it? Why are you so passionate about PLCs? I’m then typically the recipient of a surprised and puzzled look followed by a long pause. I then begin a dialogue around their responses to these questions, and before long, the gleam in their eyes and the enthusiasm in their voice returns. I then say, “Go back, tell them your Why's, and see what resonates with them. When you see what resonates with them, help them discover their Why. Once you have them talking about their Why, you’ll then begin to see their support.”
I need to caution you that discovering your Why isn’t as quick and easy as you might think. Your Why is greatly influenced by your experiences, values, and beliefs. Write them down. Contemplate them. Refine them. Expand them. Most importantly, know them and share them regularly. You’ll find yourself not having to work too hard for opportunities to share the How and What, but I’ve found you’ll have much more success if you talk about the Why first and frequently!
Here are some of my own favorite Why's:
- Our issues are complex and no one has all the answers.
- PLC’s are about empowering everyone to make a difference.
- Collaboration improves our thinking.
- I need your best thinking.
- I need your ideas.
- I want everyone to be part of a team.
- I want work to be like family.
- It is so much more enjoyable being a part of a team.
- We can do anything if we put our minds together.
Be courageous! Be passionate! Care deeply for your colleagues and share your Why!
Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York: Portfolio.