Way back in 1969, during one of the Apollo 11 press briefings in the NASA command centre in Houston, Texas, the reporters were waiting for the NASA officials when they noticed someone with a broom. One of the reporters asked what he was doing. I have no idea if the reporter was trying to score points, pass the time or was genuinely interested. But the iconic reply was “I am putting a man on the moon.”

Can it get any better than that, to have all levels of an organisation with a unified understanding and commitment to a single mission? John F Kennedy united a whole nation in the pursuit of a single goal. They achieved so much more than putting a man on the moon. There’s probably only one thing that has driven more scientific discovery than the moon landing – war. I don’t know about you but landing on the moon sounds like a healthier option,

Their’s but to do and die

At the other end of the spectrum, Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” tells a sad story of failed leadership that sent 600 men to their death in a pointless exercise against the wrong target. I won’t get all morose and poetic on you now, we’ll just squeeze in the second verse:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismay’d?

Not tho’ the soldier knew

Someone had blunder’d:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.”

Nobody could question their courage – but we would be right to question their wisdom. What if someone had actually asked “Why?” Maybe the outcome could have been totally different? In fact, the whole war could have been avoided with “Why?” but that’s another story.

Fast forward over 150 years and we are still facing the dilemma that all teams can describe what they do, many can describe how they do it, but few have really got to grips with WHY they do it. When we crack the ‘why?’ question, teams and organisations can achieve remarkable things that once appeared to be impossible.

Start with why?

Getting to grips with the why is an incredibly simple – yet powerful concept. In the book “Start with Why” Simon Sinek argues that the most inspirational leaders don’t start with what – they start with why. In the first pages we read about the mathematics professor Samuel Pierpont Langley who set out in the early 1900s to be the first man to pilot an aeroplane. He was highly regarded, incredibly well funded, surrounded by a dream team of talent and know-how and followed everywhere by the press because his success was pretty much guaranteed. Or was it? Sinek goes on to say:

“A few hundred miles away, Wilbur and Orville Wright were working on their own flying machine. Their passion to fly was so intense that it inspired the enthusiasm and commitment of a dedicated group in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. There was no funding for their venture. No government grants. No high-level connections. Not a single person on the team had an advanced degree or even a college education, not even Wilbur or Orville. But the team banded together in a humble bicycle shop and made their vision real. On December 17, 1903, a small group witnessed a man take flight for the first time in history.”

“How did the Wright brothers succeed where a better-equipped, better-funded and better-educated team could not? It wasn’t luck. Both the Wright brothers and Langley were highly motivated. Both had a strong work ethic. Both had keen scientific minds. They were pursuing exactly the same goal, but only the Wright brothers were able to inspire those around them and truly lead their team to develop a technology that would change the world. Only the Wright brothers started with Why.”

Interestingly enough, Samuel Pierpont Langley gave up once the Wright brothers succeeded. He refused the opportunity to further develop a technology that would change the world. Was it because of the bad press? Was it because he wanted to be first and there was no glory to be had in second place? Perhaps if he had really understood rule # 1 of leadership then he would have been able to tell his grandchildren a different story.

Give them something to care about

So what’s the why for your team or organisation? As Simon Sinek puts it “What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organisation exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?”

If you haven’t got a clear why for your organisation then how can you expect people to care? How can you make sure you attract and keep the right people? How can you make sure you deliver? Think about it – what’s your why? And remember profit is a result, not a why.

Having a clear why really mobilises an organisation and its customers to achieve great things. And it works the other way – when organisations lose track of why they do what they do, bad things happen. From ethical disasters at a senior level to rubbish customer service at the coal face. Don’t let that happen to you.

A clear why is absolutely essential. What’s yours?

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Peter Anderton

Author: Peter Anderton

A sought after coach and change agent, Peter has spent many years in Organisational Development, focusing on developing high performance leadership teams, executive coaching, strategy and change. He builds relationships quickly and is as comfortable in the boardroom as he is at ‘grass roots’. Known for his integrity, energy and a real passion for making things happen, he has a uniquely direct yet supportive style that delivers.

Peter is a qualified NLP master practitioner, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Chartered Engineer.