What Is Your Why?


Martin Luther King Jr. is not remembered for a plan to make civil rights a reality. He wasn’t a legislator with any ability to write law. He wasn’t a businessman with an angle to impact commerce. He was a preacher. So it was natural for him to use words. But he didn’t use his words to detail what needed to happen or how to go about it. He used words to express his belief that freedom was right. In short, he captured a nation’s imagination by expressing why civil rights were so important.


Simon Sinek calls this movement the Golden Circle, made up of why to how to what in concentric circles. In his book, Start with Why, Sinek says of MLK Jr, “We don’t remember him for an “I have a plan” speech.” He became THE icon of civil rights because his why was crystal clear. What he did was important (non-violent protest) and how it would happen was important (changed laws), but because he was able to articulate why civil rights were so important, it inspired action.


When companies tap into a cause or purpose to sell products and services, they are attempting to establish why what they are about is so important. Disney has been masterful at crafting the idea that magic is possible, even if only in the imagination. All their movies, parks, and products are toward that purpose. Apple is recognized for harnessing technology and putting it in the hand of the individual. Their commercials are always one person (often just one hand) doing something amazing with an Apple product. These companies have built their brands and, in turn, loyal followings, because they have settle upon their why.


I read an article this morning that highlights, to me at least, the importance of the why question. The writer posits this question: “A post-Independence Day question for you to consider: why is America so unexceptional at telling the story of the making of America?” I think it’s a fair question.  I would submit it is because there is no agreement as to why America was made. Some revere the founding fathers to the point of worship. While others think the 4th was merely “rich, white men, declaring independence from other rich, white men.” A country that can’t explain why it exists is doomed.


If you talk about what you do or how you do it, untethered from why you do it (your primary purpose, core cause, basis of belief), sooner or later what you do won’t make sense and how you do it won’t matter.


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