Great leaders and organizations start with why. But if you want why to feel like wow, watch these two videos.
I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek. He gave a great talk at the Puget Sound TEDx in 2009. Start With Why: How great leaders inspire action. Today over 43,000,000 have watched Start With Why. Take a look at the first five minutes.
Sinek’s idea is simple. Most organizations start with what they do, or how they do it. “I advise clients on wealth management.” “I teach business.” “I run a coffeeshop.” That’s what and how. Great organizations and leaders start with why. Here’s why we advise clients on wealth management… why I teach business… why I run a coffeeshop.
In other words, they start with purpose.
Sinek has two things going for his presentation. He wraps his message around a central organizing metaphor—a circle. And he supports his circle with brain research.
Comedian Michael Jr. has the same message. Know Your Why. But Michael has a wow. Take a look at his very brief talk. Note the difference between Sinek and Michael Jr.
Both get a lot right. Sinek is spot on—metaphor is central. Science is supportive. But Michael Jr. evokes a why that’s soulish, spiritual. A wow. He does it by asking the music instructor to personalize his why. “Imagine this. Your uncle just got out of jail. You got shot in the back as a kid.” Now sing ‘the ‘hood version.’” The music instructor does. But this time, “Amazing Grace” is wow. The singer feels it. The audience feels it. You feel it.
Years after John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” he too came to feel it.
Newton was born in 1725. For much of his life he was a slave ship master. In 1748, Newton converted to Christ. But he continued to sell slaves, making three voyages as the captain of two different slave vessels. Moreover, for many of these years he had his savings invested in the slave ship business.
Then Newton suffered a stroke in 1754. He retired as a slave ship master, but continued to invest in the slave trade. In 1764, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and wrote 280 hymns, including words for “Amazing Grace” in 1772.
In 1785, William Wilberforce came to Christ. Newton urged Wilberforce to join a community of abolitionists in Clapham. Wilberforce urged Newton to go public against slavery. Newton resisted. Then he saw the images Clapham created, including AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER? They pricked Newton’s conscience.
The Clapham activists were essentially urging Newton to imagine this: slaves are held in chains… stacked like cordwood in ships. Now write ‘the slave version’ of “Amazing Grace.”
Newton did. In 1788, now retired from the slave trade for nearly thirty-four years, Newton published a powerful pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. He begins with a “confession, which…comes too late… It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” Newton now felt it. Readers felt it. I bet you feel it.
Adam Hochschild, author of Bury The Chains, a history of the abolition movement, writes, “That Newton shuddered now is testimony to the way a strong social movement can awaken a conscience—even in a clergyman, whose very business is the awakening of consciences.” This is how Sir James Mackintosh described Wilberforce (and Clapham): “I never saw anyone who touched life at so many points. No Englishman has ever done more to evoke the conscience of the British people.”
A lot of leaders and organizations say they start with why. But in many cases, it’s a concept, or an abstraction. It’s not personalized. Great leaders and organizations start with why that’s wow—a why that arouses human conscience. They have a wow why.
 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 130-131.