By Susan Davis

Have you ever been asked why you do what you do? Some of us may jump at the chance to describe collaboration, connection or inspiration in our work, while others may feel backed into a corner. A question beginning with “why” may feel accusatory, curious, or philosophical. “What do you do?” is a common conversation opener. “How do you do what you do?” implies an educational air. Let’s examine this odd little word and its usefulness in our leadership journey.

In current leadership literature, there are several powerful and related words (symbolizing similar ideas) that are currently traveling together. Here are a few:

  • Purpose
  • Meaning
  • Intention

Many of us have spent some time pursuing a depth of understanding of these ideas as potential platforms for personal, organizational, or community application. Apathy, discontent, and separation of people toward the work needed to create meaningful dialogue, change, or transformation is a formidable barrier that warrants a closer look at these ideas. Many solutions seek to identify the underlying “problems” involved: purpose, meaning, and intention. These forward-looking concepts offer a more positive and powerful path to visioning a better outcome. For exploration, let’s go back to the shorter and broader word “why”. Simon Sinek made this word quite popular when he created his book and gave the Ted Talk, “Start with Why”. Many leaders started to ask the question, “what is my/our why?”

(We are listing other words interchangeably used for why in this article to help guide thoughts into a larger space that encapsulates the conclusion that all these are accessible and actionable. The land of words can be fuzzy. Singular words go through popular phases and gain our attention, just to be substituted for another that appears more shiny for a time.)

Many leadership and personality assessments offer a window into the values, purpose, intentions, or whys that are colorfully present in each of us. Knowing our personal operating values can create more understanding of why we choose to support and labor for our profession, organization, or community. 

Let’s test-drive “why” with a real issue:

A colleague offers to come up with strategies to assist in employee retention. Here are the options emerging:

Strategy 1: 

Study the issues. What is making people uncomfortable? What is the level of flexibility? Is there a lack of diversity in the team? The environment? (substitute any of your suspected causes here and then create action strategies)

Strategy 2: 

Clearly articulate the vision/mission/purpose of the organization. Does the leadership team understand and live the “why”? Ask employees to articulate their “why” in choosing to sell their time and life-force to this organization.

Both of these may be necessary to address employee retention, but which is more powerful to humans? 

Qualtrics created a research study to examine this issue:

“Employees who say their company’s mission, vision and values align with their own are far more likely to recommend their employer as a great place to work (70% vs. 25%) and to say their work gives them a feeling of personal accomplishment (72% vs. 29%), according to new research from Qualtrics. They’re also less likely to say they are thinking about leaving their current employer (33% vs. 44%).

On the other hand, nearly half (46%) of employees in the United States and United Kingdom say they are considering leaving their company because it does not adequately exemplify the values they personally hold. And over half (56%) would not even consider a job at a company if they did not agree with its values.” 

This is eye-opening information for employers who are working hard on recruitment and retention in the midst of The Great Resignation. And it illustrates the importance of strong leaders that have the ability to communicate the strategy, vision, and purpose of the company in a way that makes it relevant to its employees. 

Leadership is most often composed of employees. We have the same needs and identifications as other employees in the company. It is critical that we understand our purpose, our “why” and check that our intentions align with our everyday tasks and actions.

Retention and sustainability are certainly areas to gain proof of this concept, but to further clarify, ask questions like:

  • “Why are we doing what we are doing?”
  • “Why are we thinking/assuming what we are thinking/assuming?”
  • “Why has this always been done this way?” 
  • “Why has this always been effective?”

These are powerful “why” questions that can serve to strengthen organizational health and commitment. In these cases we are shifting to a solid case for understanding.

So, is there a singular “why” behind all that we do? Yes and yes. We have large singular whys that correlate with our values and stage of life (that may shift over time). Maybe right now your big why is to provide a good income to your family. Maybe in 10 years this will change to articulating a why that is to fundamentally benefit the larger community. There are many littler specific whys that inform our more specific actions and relationships.

There is such power in this three-letter word. So, many other words and concepts are carried by this stout and strong player. If your life/time/work is informed by the answer to this sturdy question, you will succeed in influencing, inspiring, and understanding that this has the potential to keep and nurture what is important, and positively transform that which needs to adjust or change. A habit of asking yourself and your organization, “WHY?” creates deep understanding, purpose, and outcomes of measurable meaning. I challenge you to formulate a working why for your life, your career, your community. It will bring sustainable energy and joy to your world!

If there is anything we can do to help you discover the “why” for your organizations or your leaders, please reach out: We would love to discuss ways to help you move successfully into future.