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There are only two ways to influence peoples’ behavior:  manipulate them or inspire them.  Simon Sinek begins his book Start With Why with this bold declaration.  Not surprisingly, Sinek argues that inspiring people is the preferred option, and proceeds to sketch out a strategy for doing so.  In short, inspiring people begins with knowing your “Purpose”, and discovering your “Why”.

According to Sinek, every organization has a “what”, a “how” and a “why”.  The “what” is usually easy, and that’s what we spend most of our time on.  For example, at Baillie Lumber our “what” is selling hardwood lumber.  Next comes the “how”.  Organizations typically also spend a good amount of time working on their “how”.  The “how” normally has to do with things like organizational structure, methods of going to market or developing products, and various other processes.  That leaves the “why”.  An organization’s “why” is often not so obvious, and as a result often receives less attention.  But, according to Sinek, an organization’s “why” is where the real action is.  It’s the holy grail!  Put simply, your “why” is the ultimate purpose or reason you do what you do.  It’s the cause or belief that really drives the organization, that motivates you to spend so much time on the what and how.  And ultimately, it’s what inspires people.

Now here comes the interesting part.  Sinek argues that people don’t actually buy “what” you do; they buy “why” you do it.  And people don’t work for you because of what you do, but because of why you do it.  According to Sinek, this all happens at the emotional level, at the “gut” or “heart” level, not at the rational, or thinking, level.  Rational arguments come later, simply justifying what our gut or heart tells us to do.

All humans have a non-rational need to belong, to connect to something bigger than themselves.  They want to connect with people and organizations that believe the same things that they do, that share the same cause they do.  Organizations that can articulate their “why”, their core belief or cause, their reason for being, will inevitably attract as customers and employees people who share that “why”.

Sinek offers Apple and Southwest as examples of companies defined by their “why”, not their “what.”  Apple is not fundamentally a computer company, he argues, but a company that challenges the status quo and that offers individuals simple alternatives.  That’s their “why”.  People connect and want to be part of this “why” before they are sold on the various features of Apple’s products (the “what”).  Similarly, Southwest Airlines was not built primarily to be an airline, but to champion the cause of the common man.  Southwest makes air travel cheap, fun and simple for the person who previously drove or took a bus.  Note their tag line, “You Are Free To Move About The Country.”  Championing the cause of the common man.  That’s Southwest’s “why”.

At Baillie, we went through a process of determining our “Purpose”, or our “Why,” over 20 years ago.  Holed up in a condo in South Carolina, we asked ourselves why we exist, and came up with the wrong answer multiple times.  Do we exist to make money?  Yes, but why?  Do we exist to create beautiful things?  Yes, but why do we want to do that?  Well, after many false starts and much soul searching, we finally discovered the purpose that had been driving our company all along:  To Help Others Succeed.  Sounds simple, maybe even trite, but it’s powerful for us.  We strive to run every decision through the grid of does it help our customer succeed?  Our supplier succeed?  Our employee succeed?  Our community succeed?  Our shareholders succeed?  We get it wrong as often as we get it right, but I believe people understand our intentions, and they connect to that.  They want to be part of that at a gut level, whether as an employee, a customer or a supplier.

Take an hour (or a day or a week) and reflect on the “Why,” or the “Purpose”, of your organization.  I believe Simon Sinek is onto something.  If you want to inspire people rather than manipulate them, it’s more important than you think.

Driving Change

I recently finished the book A Passion for Leadership by Robert Gates.  Mr. Gates served as Secretary of Defense for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, one of the few cabinet secretaries in history to serve under both a Republican and a Democratic President.  Gates also ran the CIA and was president of Texas A&M University at different points in his career.  A pretty accomplished and versatile leader, to say the least.  Although this book covers a broad array of leadership topics (and includes some really fascinating stories!), it focuses most poignantly on “driving change.”  In my opinion, government and academia are two of the hardest arenas in which to drive change.  He was successful in both, so I think he’s worth listening to.


One method that Gates used repeatedly to drive change was the establishment of special “task forces.” His task forces were not committees with unending lives, nor were they just loose groups of people working sporadically on an issue, but rather carefully selected, dedicated groups of people that came together for a season, pursued a mission on a tight time line, made specific recommendations, and then disbanded.  He describes task forces as “silo busters,” populated from all different functional areas of an organization.  He strove for the broadest possible inclusiveness on his task forces, insisting upon complete transparency and wide open internal debate.


All this is pretty standard, but Gates had one particular insight that I found new and refreshing.  “Be wary of consensus!”, he says.  Now wait a minute.  I thought consensus was a good thing.  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?  Build consensus?  “No!”, says Gates, and here’s why.  Gates quotes an ex Israeli foreign minister as saying consensus means “everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.”  When the task force keeps massaging an idea or proposal to get it to the point where everyone can sign on, the idea ultimately gets to the point where it’s not objectionable to anyone, but no one is really happy with it, it’s lukewarm, and frankly it’s probably not very good.  We’ve dumbed it down to the point where it has no edge, no punch.  Rather, Gates says, a task force should have robust, passionate, energetic dialogue, and then ultimately have a method (probably the leader decides) of choosing the best idea without watering it down in an effort to get buy-in from others.  Listen to the options, then make the hard call even though someone will be disappointed.  And once the decision is made, everyone supports it, whether or not they were for it during the discussion time.  A little different than the conventional wisdom about building consensus, but as I thought about it, an idea that really makes sense to me.


Depending on the circumstances, Gates does offer one other option for task forces.  If it fits the situation, the tasks force can present two or more distinct options, together with supporting data.  This gives the ultimate decision maker a deeper understanding of the issues with which the task force wrestled.


As uncomfortable as it is, change is necessary for every organization.  There are many ways to pursue change, but I believe the use of task forces is one of the best.  Try it next time your organization needs to make a change, and listen to the wisdom of Robert Gates.


“Talent is common.  What you invest to develop that talent is the critical final measure of greatness.” In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth shares this quote from Anson Dorrance, coach of the hugely successful University of North Carolina soccer team, as she tells the story of how Dorrance won 22 national championships in 31 years through relentlessly recruiting the grittiest young women he could find.  Grit is a remarkable book that challenged many of my beliefs about achievement and success.

In Grit, Duckworth argues that what people accomplish in life depends more on grit than on innate talent or ability.  At first this gave me pause.  As I’ve shared in earlier blogs, I’m a big believer in the “Strength Finder” school of thought, that the key to success, for an individual or an organization, is to identify innate talent and make sure we function in that “strength zone” as much as possible.  In other words, talent is most important, so find it and deploy it.  But Duckworth suggests otherwise.  As much as talent counts, she says, effort counts more. This focus on effort led to the central finding of her decades of research:  “Grit” is more important than anything in predicting human achievement.

According to Duckworth, grit has two components:  passion and perseverance.  First, passion.  For Duckworth, passion equals “commitment over time.”  Sustained, enduring devotion to a clear goal.  Having passion for something is caring about it in a loyal, steady, enduring way.  It means having the same ultimate goal over a long period of time, and not wavering in pursuit of it.  It means “going after it” every day.  Discovering our passion comes from a trial and error process of discovering what interests us and how that interest can best contribute to the well-being of others.

Perseverance is a little more straightforward.  It’s about practice.  You may have heard about the “10,000 hour rule,” the idea that you become an expert by practicing something for 10,000 hours.  Not just any kind of practice, but deliberate, focused practice.  The type of practice that focuses on one narrow aspect of overall performance, and then develops the habit of practicing it with full concentration and effort every day.  Together with passion, this type of perseverance makes people “gritty.”

In her research, Duckworth sets out to determine what difference grit makes in people’s lives.  She developed a “Grit Grid” which she used to measure the level of grit in 1200 high school students.  She asked these students to identify their extracurricular activities in high school, how long they stuck with those activities, and their overall achievement level in these activities.  Through this process, she developed the grit score for each student.  After two years, only 34% of the students studied were still enrolled in college.  But 69% of the students who scored 6 of 6 on the Grit Grid were still in college, while only 16% of the students who scored 0 of 6 on the Grit Grid were still enrolled.  The predictive power of grit was striking.

Anson Dorrance administers the Grit Grid to every recruit for his UNC soccer team.  Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks, uses grit principles when he selects players.  The admission staff at Harvard College uses similar grit principles when they decide which of their many talented applicants to admit.  Grit clearly makes a difference.

The best news about grit is that we can each “grow our grit.”  Unlike talent, it’s something we can improve.  Duckworth identifies two ways to accomplish that.  First, from the “inside out”.  Find something you’re interested and passionate about, and develop the habit of deliberately practicing it every day.  Second, from the “outside in.”  Get yourself in a gritty culture and hang around gritty people.  It will wear off on you and shape who you are.

As I thought about Duckworth’s work, a few practical implications occurred to me.  First, if you’re in a leadership role, pay more attention to identifying and hiring people with high levels of grit.  They will usually outperform their more talented peers who lack grit.  Second, if you’re a parent, work hard to develop habits of grit in your kids.  It may be the most important gift you give them.  And finally, if you run an organization, work hard to develop a gritty culture.  It will wear off on everyone who joins your organization.

So I still believe in talent.  There’s no sense in trying to develop a person in an area where they have limited talent.  But once you’ve identified an area of talent, “grit” makes all the difference in whether or not a person will develop that talent, and ultimately achieve great things in their life.

Asking Questions

I’ve written at least one other blog on a book by John Maxwell.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with John, he has probably written and sold more books on leadership than anyone alive.  He founded, and still provides direction for, multiple organizations.  When I have a leadership question, John’s books or CDs are still my first visit.

I recently read a book that he wrote in 2014 titled Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.  This book got me thinking about the value of spending less time telling people things and more time asking them questions.  The whole book is great, but the third chapter (“What Questions Do I Ask My Team Members?”) really caught my attention.  I’d like to highlight just a few of the questions that John recommends asking people on your team regularly.  Here they are:

  • “What do you think?” This is probably the most powerful question you can ask another person.  Sometimes it just helps you gather information, or get another person’s perspective (often different from your own).  That alone is incredibly valuable.  But, in my experience, the greatest value from this question comes from the way it affirms and builds up the other person.  You’re asking their opinion!  Their opinion is valuable, and that makes them feel valuable.  When I’ve asked people this question, I’ve literally seen their eyes brighten and their self-confidence grow.  No other question is quite as helpful to both me and the people with whom I work as this one.
  • “What do I need to communicate?” Effective leadership is often about understanding “context.”  Understanding the context you’re in and what other people expect or need from you.  Many times another person can see that better than you, so asking them what you need to communicate to your team (or any group of people with whom you’re involved) can be a lifesaver.  Ask the question “What’s the most important thing others need to know right now?”  You may be surprised how often it’s something you didn’t expect, and you’ll be surprised at how much this question helps you.
  • “What did you learn?” This question makes people evaluate their experiences and reflect on what they can learn from those experiences.  As John says, this question “keeps my staff sharp and growing.  It prompts people to evaluate their experience and make an assessment.”  We all want our team members to be growing.  We can help them develop a plan for personal growth.  That’s great as far as it goes.  But the only way to make sure growth happens day in and day out is to ask them a question like this one.   It forces a person to reflect on their experience, and come up with a “take away” from that experience.  We can all learn something every day, but sometimes we need to be prompted to do so.
  • “How are the numbers?” This question cuts to the heart of the matter.  It’s easy to give opinions or paint a picture.  But, as John says, “Numbers count.  They tell a story.  They let you know what the score is.  They show you where you’re winning and where you’re failing so you can make adjustments.  They show trends.  They reveal weaknesses.  They are tangible evidence of how well you’re doing.”  The numbers show the bottom line.  Enough said.
  • “What am I missing?” I love this question.  First, it shows humility.  It shows you don’t think you know everything.  In general, people love it when you ask them for help.  And this question does just that.  But beyond that, it recognizes that we all have blind spots.  We may see 70- 80% of the landscape, but often it’s the 20-30% that we miss that causes us problems.  This question invites others to help us see the whole picture.  Usually they can and they will.  And sometimes it prevents a catastrophic mistake.

I have to confess that I have not made asking these questions a personal discipline yet.  However, it’s on my list of habits to form, and writing this blog gives me some incentive!  I’d encourage you to experiment with asking these five questions to 2 or 3 of your team members at least once a month for the next several months.  See what happens.  Experience the power of asking good questions!

Thank You

I’m currently reading a book named What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.  Goldsmith is a world renowned executive coach who has worked with some of the most prominent leaders of Fortune 500 companies.  He commands a six figure price tag for his one-on-one coaching sessions.  Lots of great stuff in this book, but his “20 habits (or behaviors) that most frequently sabotage leaders” grabbed my attention.  Of these 20 troublesome behaviors, one in particular jumped out at me: “Failing to Express Gratitude.”  Goldsmith argues that the two sweetest words to people’s ears are “Thank You.”  They are magic.  People love to hear these words whatever the context.  So use them broadly and liberally.

Goldsmith identifies one specific area where saying “thank you” can make a difference in your leadership, and I’d like to drill down on that a bit.  If your co-workers (or people you lead) feel brave, they may offer you a suggestion about how your organization could be improved.  If they’re really feeling brave, they may even bring you some bad news.  And if they’re feeling super brave, they just might be willing to give you some personal feedback on how you could improve as a leader.  Well, if you’re anything like me, in each of these cases the natural tendency is to immediately begin evaluating the feedback the person gives, and then start telling them what you agree with and what you don’t agree with.  According to Goldsmith, this is a big mistake.

When given any of these types of feedback, two simple words are the correct answer:  “Thank you.”  Is this just about being friendly and nice, about creating a pleasant environment?  Not at all.  In reality, it’s mostly about the impact saying “thank you” has on people’s willingness to bring you feedback in the future.  As Goldsmith says, “… saying ‘thank you’ keeps people talking to you.  Failing to say ‘thank you’ shuts them down.”  Sure, it cuts against our natural desire to be right, to win.  But biting your lip, resisting the temptation to immediately begin debating, and just saying “thank you” opens the floodgates to future information.  People understand that just because you say “thank you” doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them, but they appreciate the fact that you’re considering their point of view.

Goldsmith tells the story of golfer Mark O’Meara playing in a made-for-TV Skins Game with Tiger Woods.  All the golfers wore microphones, so the audience could hear everything they said.  Every time one of his partners said “Nice shot,” O’Meara said “thank you.”  Like 50 times.  Not only was O’Meara being polite, but he was setting the stage for his partners to feel open to giving him additional feedback in the future, some of which might be very helpful to him.

So next time someone gives you feedback about yourself or your organization, smile and say “thank you.”  You can circle back later that day, or several days later, and discuss the feedback in more depth.  But in the moment, let your response be simply “Thank You.”