The most concise, truly beautiful definition of leadership I’ve heard is “having others WANT to follow you.” This definition means two things 1) that you’re actually moving somewhere, not standing still and 2) that others are convinced, not coerced, into going along.
There are so many leadership books out there, some talking about vision, some about audacity, some about authenticity. Advice is often mysterious and convoluted — we hear of “executive maturity” (perfectly ambiguous excuse to keep the outsiders away) and of “situational leadership” (sorry, there are no best practices … every situation is different).
It’s so easy to get lost in the isles of self-help books, switching from emulating Steve Jobs (I’m the brilliant a-hole, you will all follow me or else) to trying to be the best servant-leader. You can lose your identity this way. Forget being the idea man; forget being the obsessive control freak of every detail of execution. Forget trying to be someone else.
For me, a single piece of advice changed everything: “Only the Why matters.” Why does our company exist? Why is what I’m doing meaningful to the world?
An average team, when it truly believes in its purpose — in the Why of it all — will outperform a superstar team. They’ll become zealots, fanatics, with grit and perseverance that outshine raw talent.
There are many symptoms of organizations that can be explained by the lack of the Why:
- Your team doesn’t care about product quality? You feel they’re not engaged, that they are “mailing it in”? This is because they don’t believe that what they’re doing matters. The “Why” you’ve given them as a leader does not resonate.
- The same issues keep popping up again and again, and your engineers don’t care to automate the problem? They don’t believe that the task they’re doing matters. The Why is missing.
- Your group is stuck in meetings that seem to never end, a sort of analysis-paralysis? They don’t really understand the Why as well as you do; if they did, they’d know how time plays into it.
Be authentic with the Why. Find a true why that YOU believe in. You can’t fake it — your team will feel it; they’ll nod politely but will not be engaged. Do YOU really think that the Why you selected matters? Are you convinced? Then what are you waiting for? Tell everyone on your team about it, infect them with your genuine passion!
Here are some examples on organizations that have excelled at the Why:
- Microsoft had it right with “Computer on every desk,” but lost it with a vague “To empower every person and every organization to achieve more.”
- SpaceX has guts: “Enable people to live on other planets.” Where do I sign up?
- Even City of Bellevue Utilities finds a way to inspire its employees even though its mission statement includes the words solid waste: “… support public health and safety, quality neighborhoods and a healthy and sustainable environment and economy by effectively managing: drinking water, waste water, storm and surface water, and solid waste.”
When the Why becomes central, you switch from being a manager to being a leader; from doing to inspiring; from reacting to deliberately pursuing. Make it a point to have the Why — not the how, not the what — be the topic of most conversations.
Alex Weinstein (@alexweinstein) is a Director of Product at eBay and the author of the Technology + Entrepreneurship blog (http://www.alexweinstein.net), where he explores data-driven decision making in the face of uncertainty. Prior to eBay, Alex was the head of product development at Wetpaint, a personalization tech startup.
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