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student leadership


Do You Remember Your Why?

Sometimes we have to be reminded of the importance of asking “Why?”

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I recently hosted a group of friends who I deeply admire for their work across various professional settings as well as their passion for leadership. I had asked them to provide me with some feedback on my current project – a three book series on leadership development and an initiative for implementing Learning & Leadership Labs in classrooms, schools, districts and other organizations.

While each one of them brought a unique point view to our conversation, all of them did agreed that I had to do a better job to emphasize the vision of my work. Furthermore, it had to be at the center of my leadership model.

They are right.

I always strongly advice leaders that a crucial first step is to understand and address what is at the core of our motivations for taking action. Too often we find ourselves rushing to take action without fully understanding our motivations. And, unfortunately, this can lead to results that are so far removed from our original intentions that we no longer have a vision to guide us.  

Simon Sinek, speaker and author of “It Starts With Why,” has developed a simple and powerful model for how great leaders can inspire others to take action.

Watch Simon Sinek's TEDx Talk, “How great leaders inspire action.” 

The model is simple, Simon believes the most inspirational leaders know how to communicate by explaining the “Why?” of what they do.  In comparison, many other leaders will talk about what or how they are going to do something.

Here is my own example for Power to Define, pay attention to each of the following sentences:

What? – I'm a motivational speaker, I facilitate workshops and do consulting work. 

How? – My approach is to work with students and educators through design thinking and experiential learning. 

Why? – I believe every student deserves and excellent education and I'm committed to educational equity.

Now, which one sounds more inspiring?

Inspirational leaders know how to communicate from the inside out. They’ll start out by communicating their beliefs before they tell you their plan. Simon explains, “people don’t buy what you do, but why you do it.”

There are “leaders” who will only attempt to tell us what to do or how to do it. This is not inspiring. In the other hand, there are leaders who inspire us to believe in ourselves and in our own dreams. When you communicate with your beliefs you inspire people to follow their own beliefs.

At the end of the day, when you are leading and inspiring people to take action you don’t want them to do it because of you. You want them to do it for themselves and because they believe it is the right thing to do.

So before you start leading, ask your self this simple and powerful question: Why?

It could be your passion for service or maybe a deep belief in social justice and equality.

Even in the ABOUT section of my website, I describe my work at Power to Define by first outlining my vision as follows:

“We believe in the power of education to transform and improve our world. We are dedicated to ensuring all communities have access to an excellent education.”

This is my “Why.” The reason why I wake up every morning ready to give my best to every student, classroom, school and person I meet. I’m driven by a deep believe in education and equity. This is the passion that has gotten me this far and I will certainly continue to put it at the core of the work I do.

So, what is your why?

Just like me, you might the help of friends and colleagues to help you refocus your efforts. But, in the end, just like any worthy endeavor on world of leadership, self-reflection will be key.

For this purpose, an effective exercise that can be done individually or in a group setting is designers technique known as the 5-Why’s. You start out by writing a statement that can reflect a goal, belief or mission. And then you question this statement with why for five times. As you work through this process you will notice that your statement is beginning to get to the core of your why.

My favorite story to tell about this method is when I was working with a group of students to decide why it was good serve others. Our process went something like this:

1st Statement: Service is Good.

1.     Why? Because service is about helping others.

2.     Why? Because people deserve our kindness. 

3.     Why? Because everyone needs someone to be there for them.

4.     Why? Because we are human and we need connection.

As I was about to ask the next “Why?” one student stopped me and told me the following:

“Mr. Ortega, of course service is good. Why not?”

And it just clicked. For the next three months this group of students worked on a school wide campaign titled: “Service: Why Not?”

This became another beautiful example of how design methods can lead to wonderful discoveries that can transform a vision into an action. 

 Just like these students, let the rediscovery of your “Why” become a driving force for your work. 

Let us keep designing!

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