Leadership: The importance of Why?

I recently interviewed Peter Docker of WhyNot. Peter is one of the key collaborators who works with the famous leadership author, Simon Sinek the author of ‘Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action’ which is a famous book and TED talk. Simon Sinek has inspired millions of people to focus on Why it is they do what they do and to enhance their performance as a result. Peter is also part of the Start With Why team and has the role of Igniter and Implementation Specialist. The following words were drawn from a discussion with Peter but are not verbatim his exact words.

In this interview I ask some questions relating to his experience and his vision for effective leadership and business performance.

What is it that led you on the path to inspiring people?

“I am where I am now due to my experience. For 25 years I was an RAF pilot and it gave me an opportunity to work with a lot of different people in challenging situations that could be defined as extreme. When there is a risk to life, it strips away a lot of the noise about what really matters and what causes people to choose to do things generally as they are connected to a cause or belief bigger than themselves. This is what the military gave me. I look back now and see how I didn’t get it right, and sometimes I admit it was more about luck than judgement! But it gave me an excellent opportunity to work in challenging situations with a lot of clever and committed people who were all in their own way leaders. They all knew exactly why they were doing and motivation was high.”

So through these challenging experiences were you able to lead because you have the rank and authority?

“Rank and authority is not leadership. I believe that leadership is not about a rank or position. Leadership is a choice. When I look back at that time I rose to Group Captain I had a very formal leadership role. However the vast majority of leadership actually came from people below me through their individual leadership. All that I did was to create a context for this to occur and this inspired great innovation and leadership from the people in my team. The culture and environment we created meant that people felt free to come forward with ideas so we were able to solve problems collaboratively.”

So why did you make the leap from the military to working with Simon Sinek? And starting your business WhyNot?

“After leaving the military a natural step would be to go into the defence sector or to become an airline pilot. However I was fortunate that 2-3 years before I left the military I met up with an old friend of mine, Simon Marshall. He was working with a remarkable company in dangerous fields such Oil and Gas, Mining and Construction. He helped these companies to develop safety strategies and leadership models. I observed that people looked after one another like they were life-long friends. The approach that Simon Marshall took really brought people together to focus on safety leadership. In essence how to look out for each other in 13 different languages! I was fortunate enough to step into this company in Europe, Middle East and Africa for 2-3 years, and to a large extent I discovered what it is to be human. In my third year there I came across Simon Sinek and it had a profound effect on me.  I felt could do more. Then I spent the next 5 months downloading what I had learned – teaching leadership – and connecting with Simon Sinek. I adopted the ‘Why’ concept because it also fitted neatly with key principles that I had already identified. I also created a model for integrating their Why in order to discover ‘Why’ they do what they do then making sure it reaches all levels of the organisation and ensuring that the what and the how supports this vision.”

Explain more about the ‘Why’?

“To explain this is to define a cause that a company believes in. This cause defines their purpose as it is ‘Why’ they exist. It is not about purely making money. As being about only the money does not provide the kind of galvanising performance for the people that work at the company. 

The ‘Why’ is integral to a company’s being, but it is not merely a theory, it is biological fact. Why we do something as opposed to how or what we do, is emotional. The most successful companies in the world understand why it is they do what they do. It is hard to articulate purely because it is emotional but because of this it is powerful driver for collective motivation. 

To explain this, Sinek uses his model of the Golden Circle (above). The Golden Circle is a tool for explaining why it is we do what we do. The older part of the brain is the emotional core, the limbic. This is where the ‘Why’ element resides. It is the part that governs emotion and when tapping into this part of the brain it can therefore be highly motivating. The part of the brain that developed later was the logical part, (the neo-cortex) and can more easily understand and communicate things that are tangible and rational, including language and data.Companies like Apple are very good at defining why they do what they do. Albeit that their technology and their talent pool is fundamentally not that different to any other technology manufacturer. Their ‘Why’ set them aside from the others and they became the world’s most valuable company in the process. 

Implementing the ‘Why’ is really important – helping companies to implement this into their processes is a challenging but rewarding thing to do.  It is ‘from inspiration to implementation’ and it inspires fresh possibilities along with longer term support. Discovering the ‘Why’ is quite simple but somehow more difficult to implement.”

So does this become harder with some companies as opposed to others? 

“I don’t believe so. We are all human. The golden circle is a fact of biology, it is how we are all hard wired. We suggest we work with the biology because on a fundamental level it ties us all together. 

“When you have a discussion with people about the business, it goes well beyond the money. You hear the stories, and it is the stories that bring it to life. For some companies the ‘Why’ may be similar but what they do and how they do it may be different – just having clarity on ‘Why’ helps to make things far simpler for people to understand. 

“As humans we love complexity – we spend all our times developing our neo cortex and in a typical organisation you rise to the top because you prove you can do what is required. We reward technical expertise and we are naturally attracted to complexity because it is driven by biology and hierarchy and it is how we have survived and thrived. Management is about complexity but leadership is about creating simplicity and belief.

“If you listen to anybody who is an effective leader, they are great at a simplifying things with a clear message. Leonardo Da Vinci said simplicity is the greatest sophistication and the model of the golden circle is actually a very simple model. But making things simple and uncluttering the thinking can be very challenging indeed.

“So getting to that simple ‘Why’ model isn’t necessarily easy. You will still need management to handle systems and processes. The organisation that does not have this will fail – but you need leadership for simplicity. Motivating people has to be more than just money. It has to make people want to invest their time, energy and inspiration. It is the role of leadership to create the context within which the content can happen.

“Really when you think about it, there are only two things. Content and Context. Content goes nowhere without the context. Imagine jigsaw puzzle pieces laid out on a table. Only when you have the jigsaw picture you have the vision and it makes is much easier to put the pieces together. The challenge is made a lot harder without the image or the vision.

“Effective leadership enables all of the constituent parts of a business, (the jigsaw pieces) all of the people, to relate to the vision. It enables people to become passionate about the company, and when you get this collective passion then impressive things can happen. It really is that simple.”

If you would like to find out more about Peter and see where he will be speaking:
www.startwithwhy.com and www.whynotunlimited.com   

As far as upcoming public events are concerned, he is speaking at the WOBI on Leadership Mexico 2016 in Mexico City in June (http://www.wobi.com/eventos) and, closer to home, The London Business Forum, in London in October https://www.londonbusinessforum.com/event/Start+With+Why