Leading with Purpose: Who Comes Before Why

In Simon Sinek’s powerful TED Talk and book he emphasizes that companies who succeed start with why they are doing what they do, their ultimate desire to “make a dent in the universe.” It is a very compelling talk. One of my tasks at our university is to teach non-profit and church leadership. As a former economist and stockbroker who has helped some companies turned their fortunes around, I have learned some things. As I have observed and analyzed church leadership and non-profit leadership, which by the way, may be some of the most difficult forms of leadership, I consolidated an idea that I believe is central to leadership:

Who comes before Why.

Let me unpack that statement. We can never know why we do something, create a service or a product, or determine what a group will pursue until we understand the who. By who, I mean two things: First, who are we intending to serve; second, who are the people we are working with — either employees or volunteers.

First, who do we intend to serve? My friend Doug was a pastor for thirty years. Then, he moved into the life insurance industry. Because of his love for people and his people-oriented approach toward life, Doug had problems making money goals. However, working with his manager, Doug realized that he could make goals for how many people he wanted to help each year. Further, he was able to determine what kind of people he wanted to help. With this knowledge and direction, Doug excelled in his business by the end of his first year.

If we want to succeed in business, non-profits, in any sphere of endeavor, we need to know who we are serving. We need to know what they value. As an example, Geerd Hofstede worked for IBM doing the largest cultural studies ever conducted, and developed what is now known as the Cultural Dimension Theory. Through his studies of hundreds of thousands of people over twenty years he learned that cultures vary in six major ways: Power Distance, Individualism, Uncertainty avoidance, Masculinity, Long Term Orientation, and Indulgence vs. restraint. Lets consider one of these variables. Power distance is the distance between the authority figure and the people they are leading. While Germany and Austria had the lowest power distance, Singapore and several other Asian countries had the highest power distance. High power distance cultures value obedience to authority, conformity, close supervision, disagreement avoidance, and discourage upward mobility. In contrast, low power distance cultures value independence, diversity of opinions, creativity, lack of supervision and upward mobility. His studies indicate that if we want to be successful with clients from different cultures we need to adjust what we do to match the cultures of the people we are serving.

Other considerations when we are considering who we are serving include your potential clients’ loves, priorities, and values. For example, are the people you intend to serve artists, sports enthusiasts, musicians, innovators, conservers, etc.? Do they value raising children, independence, questing for experiences, or security? How you shape your service, and the why of your company, will depend on who you serve.

Second, who are the people we attract to work with us? Who are the people already working for us when we become leaders? What do they value? If we are working with a generally low power distance workforce in a multi-cultural society, we will have to navigate the differences between what our clients’ value and what our employees or volunteers value. I have done six years of informal studies with my students working at non-profit organizations. I asked them to do surveys to learn what their volunteers and employees thought was good and bad about their services or activities and what their clients thought about the various services and activities they provided. Almost without exception, the services they provided and activities they were doing were much more highly valued by the volunteers and employees when compared to their clients and constituents. That has lead me to the conclusion that groups shape and provide services that employees and volunteers value, and that often these providers will even disparage what their participants and clients value. That is not a way to create enthusiasm for their products or services. This is not the way to shape an effective why.

The big takeaway for me: who we serve and who is working to serve them with us is of primary importance to understand before we shape the why of what we are doing. Who comes before why. Only when we understand the who will the why be created effectively.