While all this “Why” language may be commonplace in the business world, it hasn't quite found legs in the education world just yet. At Co-Created, we love building bridges, breaking down silos, and learning across industries. So what could these “Why” statements look like in schools and even in classrooms?
Simon Sinek broke records with the popularity of his 2009 TEDx talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” marking the start of the WHY revolution in the business world. To this day, his is one of the most-watched TEDx talks of all time, which incidentally proves one of his main points in the talk: people are drawn to purpose.
Take a look at the power of Why:
In his talk, Sinek flipped the What & How paradigm-- the more common way of “selling” an idea-- on its head, encouraging leaders instead to start with Why. He illustrated this concept with what he called The Golden Circle, then connected it to brain science to explain why humans respond so well to it:
From there, Sinek pointed out the differences between those who made history and those who did not. He highlighted MLK jr., The Wright Brothers, and Apple. What set these figures apart? What took them from ordinary to extraordinary?
They knew their why. It was clear and it was at the forefront.
Apple didn’t say, we make good computers. They said, we get you: we think different.
MLK jr. didn’t say, I have a plan. He said, I have a dream.
The Wright brothers didn’t say, let’s get rich. They said, let’s change the course of human history.
In Golden CIrcle terms, these three were success stories because they went from the inside out instead of the outside in. They started with why. They gave us something we could feel, something we could believe in.
Sometimes it helps to see an idea in practice to really understand how it works in application.
Here is a collection of companies who have strong, clear WHYs:
“People don’t buy [in to] what you do. They buy [in to] why you do it.”
This is the phrase Sinek repeated throughout his talk, and for good reason.
For translating this to education world, I added the “in” and the “to.” We’re talking buy-in. We want all stakeholders bought into the why-- the higher purpose, the deeper meaning-- of educating students.
This has a few implications for both school-level leaders* and classroom-level leaders*.
* = At Co-Created, We use the term classroom leaders instead of "teachers," and school leaders instead of "administrators." These terms fit more accurately and help people outside the field of education understand the professionalism of our work. Teachers are leaders of classrooms. They do much more than teach, and they deserve to be recognized as the professionals they are. Administrators are leaders of schools, similar to a president or a C-suite executive. Words matter.
For school leaders, start by thinking of this one in terms of hiring and retention.
Of course we hire educators to educate-- but that’s just the what. Sure, we also want them to do a good job of educating-- but that’s still just the how. More importantly, though, why should they pick your school? Why is it the right fit and the kind of purpose they want to get behind? Why should they buy into this whole thing?
Hiring the right people: When recruiting, talk about what you believe to attract others who believe the same. Again, people are drawn to purpose. Draw them in by making your Why clear; if it matches their own, they will be eager to pursue.
Reducing turnover: The next step after recruiting is making the actual hiring decisions, and this is one of the most pivotal points in retention. The key? hire people who believe what you believe, and who believe in what your organization stands for. When someone chooses a job based on aligning with their own beliefs and purpose, then they feel they are being true to themselves. People do what they believe in, and they stick with it.
Many school leaders will remember the classic Jim Collins "right people on the bus" analogy. The right people get on the bus because they are bought into the why, and they stay on the bus when it stays true to the why they signed up for.
For classroom leaders, think about this "Why" stuff in terms of student motivation.
We spend a big chunk of our time giving directions to students, which mainly come in the form of WHAT to do or HOW to do it. How often are you describing WHY to do something? Likely only when a student asks, and at that point, likely with a justifiably annoyed tone at best, or a “because I said so” at worst.
What if we started with why? Imagine answering your students’ question before they even ask it. It saves you time and annoyance, and it gives them the answer they’re looking for right off the bat. In my experience, it became my go-to classroom management hack for preventing power struggles (no need to challenge or distrust authority when the authority figure is making their purpose and intent crystal clear).
PS: It applies just as well in adult-to-adult interactions as it does adult-to-child.
Why-Before-How Formula = “Since we [reason; why], I need you to [action; what] + [in this way; how].”
And that’s just for the little everyday Whys.
What about the big Whys?
Imagine if you and your students came together and wrote your shared Why, the purpose that would guide your work together for the year. It gives everyone something to anchor to, something to aim for, something to measure by. It aligns you in a common direction, bigger than yourselves. Purpose is unifying.
Back to you one more time, school leaders--
Could your staff and/or students articulate your school’s Why?
The purpose of going to school is not to get good grades, or get into college, or get a good job. Those are results, just like SInek’s example of making profit or getting rich are results. Results are different than purpose. They are not a why.
Why goes bigger. It inspires, it motivates. Your Why gets at the core of your beliefs. Why is a feeling.
TRY IT (with a freebie!)
Sinek was so passionate about the idea of being purpose-driven and leading from a why-before-how position, he wrote two great books on the subject: Start With Why to explain the concept in depth, then Find Your Why to serve as a companion workbook for applying the concepts in real life.
I highly recommend reading these books before or while using the tool below-- the tool will make MUCH more sense when paired with the books. Reading the books was a huge growing experience for me personally and professionally, and I would love for you to have that experience, too!
All leadership work starts with the self, so the first *freebie* tool here is the Why Discovery for Individuals.
What is your personal why?
Find out using the tool below, based on Sinek's book Find Your Why.
This tool is for anyone interested in living with a clearer sense of purpose-- it has nothing to do with your job title or field of work.
Getting back to the Why of Co-CreatED has been a journey. We are passionate about doing everything we can to make education humanizing and equitable for all students. We are laser-focused on that purpose, and we love helping other educators lead from a more purpose-driven place along with us.
Thank you for allowing yourself to envision a world where ALL students-- regardless of zipcode, SES, race, or ability-- reach their fullest potential.
Thank you for believing that all children have the right to a co-created education: an experience that is empowering, inclusive, rigorous, and supportive.
The path to learning is co-created; thanks for being a part of it.
So one last time as we wrap up the series:
What is YOUR why?
If you are a school leader or classroom leader interested in discovering a shared 'why' for the team you lead, we'd love to connect with you and help you reach your goals. Use the contact form below.