I shared this with our upper school student body last week, in a continuing series of TED talks for student assemblies, ( which I think is the greatest thing since email).
Simon Sinek tells us of an extremely simple and extremely powerful strategy for leadership and commercial success: to tell Why first? All people need to follow you, and follow you passionately, is to know why you do what you do, and to believe in it. The what doesn’t matter nearly so much once people believe in the why.
Martin Luther King was so successful because he shared his dream: his followers knew why he was calling and working for change, and the followed him. Apple, the computer company, shares its vision for why they are a company: to disrupt the status quo, Sinek explains, and that is its secret sauce, not its quality products; this is in contrast to TiVo, he says, which has a similarly quality product but hasn’t explained why consumers would want it.
Myself, I am conflicted about the success of the talk. I think his historical examples are less than convincing: both Apple and TiVo have had, over their histories, plenty of ups and downs on the roller coaster of the stock market and consumer adoption. Martin Luther King, if you look closely at the civil rights movement history, had tremendous ups and downs in his career, and was struggling at the time of his death. I don’t find the video’s story about the Wright brothers persuasive at all.
Our students, though, teachers are telling me, have been impressed with the talk and making reference to it frequently. They took from it that they should be more purposeful about why they are doing what they are doing, and that they should be making a greater effort to do what they believe in, what they emotionally connect to, and not just what they would do routinely or because someone told them they should. The video has motivated them to be more purposeful and more passionate about acting in alignment with their beliefs, particularly the idealistic ones. Others see the message as being more practical: they are doing what they do for the reason why: to get into a better college. Alas.
I do think that there is a lesson for schools; I think we should be more emphatic, more clear, more direct about why we are educating students. There is often some “why” embedded in our mission statements, but rarely is it, to my observation, loud enough. At St. Gregory we have worked in the past few years to elevate the why, but perhaps not yet emphatically enough. Our motto is Creating Leaders and Innovators, but that is what we are here to do, not why we do it. In the new mission statement we offer the following:
[our school] prepares [students] to make a positive impact in the world through pursuing their passions, appreciating and creating beauty, and solving problems.
The why is there. Why create leaders and innovators? So they can make a positive impact in the world, and most particularly so the can solve its problems. Should we elevate this message and make it more central? Sinek would say yes, and it is something we should think about serious.