The Importance of "Why": Inspiring Action With Great Leadership

Contributed By

Elizabeth Trach

Professional Writer and Blogger

The Importance of "Why": Inspiring Action With Great Leadership

Posted in Evolving Ed | March 06, 2017

Change is hard. Anyone with a New Year's resolution in hand will tell you so as the early months wear on—and that's just an individual proposition. Institutional change is even more daunting, a challenge akin to turning an aircraft carrier on a dime.

Click here to get an inside look at Saint Paul Public Schools' strategy for implementing personalized learning districtwide.

Still, inspiring leaders make it happen all the time, whether in government, business, or education. But what separates great leaders who get results from middling managers and their 12-step plans for success? In short, it's their ability to inspire their teams.

If you're wondering how to rally your faculty around your new plan for your institution, consider Simon Sinek's Golden Circle.

The Golden Circle: Why? How? What? In That Order.

According to Simon Sinek, an author, motivational speaker, and marketing consultant, great leaders and organizations take a less obvious route towards their goals. If you, for example, wanted to roll out a new technology instutiton-wide and you're planning out your strategy, you might start by defining what you want to do (and what tools you're going to use), how you are going to do it, and why this is important.

And when you communicate this to your colleagues and faculty, it would probably follow the same order of logic.

While this seems like a good plan, Simon points out in this fascinating TEDx Talk that many of the most successful leaders reverse that order and start with "why." This is what he calls "The Golden Circle."

The Golden Circle: image credit

According to Simon, great leaders communicate from the center of this circle out. He says this is why some people and organizations are able to inspire while others aren't.

So looking back at our tech rollout example, you may end up finding more success by reversing it. Start with why it's this change is so important. After all, adopting or replacing an LMS is a big, far-reaching change that can require a shift in routine, pedagogy, and even institutional culture—a change that not everyone will be excited about.

But if you start with why, you're more likely to have a strategy that truly meets your institutional goals. You're also more likely to inspire your faculty to believe that despite the immensity of the challenge before them, it's worth it.

Otherwise, you run the risk of it coming off as a delegation forced upon your faculty without their consent. Ask an instructor about a major frustration with educational leadership, and you might get a litany of responses about institutions grasping at fads without a clear understanding about why they're doing so.

The "why" can be the most important question great leaders asks themselves. Why are you changing course in your institution? The answer will surely come back to the improving students experiences or another core mission, and a great leader will articulate this answer in a concise, inspiring way. Everyone from Steve Jobs to Martin Luther King, Jr. has had the "why" firmly in mind as they led their teams to the mountaintop, and you can do the same for your institution.

The Golden Circle and Saint Paul Public Schools

The Saint Paul Public Schools provided us with an excellent example of the Golden Circle in action. During a presentation they gave on their personalized learning strategy, SPPS explained that when they devised their program and chose Schoology's LMS as its hub, digital learning was not their main goal. Instead, the leaders of SPPS shared that the "what" of individualized digital learning only came about in their strategy after they had a bigger, more inspiring goal in mind.

SPPS has an incredibly diverse student body, and they were keenly aware that they had a major achievement gap problem in their system. Rather than focus on strategies and techniques, they first devised a goal—to find what worked in the district's "pockets of excellence" and spread it to all children in the district, regardless of race, class or native language.

When asked, SPPS Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning Karen Randall explained that digital learning, while important, was merely the answer to a secondary question about how to improve learning. The more important theme in their work was why they were working so hard to extend educational equity to all.

With that inspiring mandate at the forefront, their staff embraced the changes and went full speed ahead on their program to bring individualized education to all students.

The 3 Questions of Leadership

Before asking your faculty and staff to follow you, you need their buy-in. Great leaders always begin by answering these questions in order:

  1. Why are you making changes? Who will benefit, and why is that important?
  2. How will you change your programs and operations to support your goal? How will you know that your work is in line with your stated reasons for change?
  3. What will be your lasting achievement? What are the daily steps you'll take to get there?

To inspire your faculty and staff to embrace the difficult changes you're asking for, the "why" is crucial. If you give them a cause to believe in first, then break down the steps to get there, you'll be able to initiate change more effectively, whether it's big or small. 

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