It’s perhaps the most effective way that Simon Sinek, in his TED talk on powerful leadership, makes his point about the power of belief to inspire action. Most of his examples centre around business innovation and business success, but the argument works cross-platform. “People don’t buy what you do,” he says. “They buy why you do it, and what you do simply serves as the proof of your belief.”
Sinek is the author of the 2009 book “Start With Why.” It’s a fascinating concept, one that I think has significant implications for anyone working to bring about social change, and especially for an organization I am working with now, which is trying to bring about change within a university, the land of ideas. A few years ago, at the end of a contract I had with the same organization, I had a small but profound realization while sitting with the senior architect for the university, going over bicycle rack installation plans. Towards the end of the meeting we got off topic and started discussing a whole range of possible sustainability initiatives, and I got the chance to show her the websites of a number of other schools’ sustainability offices.
Something changed – I went from showing her a bunch of whats and hows (bicycle rack models and installation sites) to sharing feelings – whys. Our conversation became freer and easier and I was less concerned with delivering objectives but more sharing hopes and dreams. She responded with interest and I could sense something shift – I began to see her more as a person and less as a position, a tendency I easily fall into. I realized then and there that I could never show her the perfect plan, being as she was the senior architect. But I could share with her what inspired me and try to connect with her on a deeper level, less concerned with a specific outcome then a general shift in awareness, towards a concern for sustainability. I can’t definitively link that conversation with any particular actions towards that end, but 5 years on, sustainability has become a central goal of the university.
It’s something I’m thinking a lot about now. I am entering into a period of reflection, both professionally, on my major contract with the university, which is nearing completion and from which there are different possible avenues forward, and personally, where I just feel the need to slow down and ‘figure some stuff out.’ The Why/What conversation started for me last year when, after a particularly hectic 6 months in which I accomplished some major projects but suffered the deterioration of some important relationships and experienced a high degree of stress, I pretty much had a breakdown and decided to get the hell out of Dodge. I took a train to the west coast and spent the next two months riding my bicycle, lying on the beach, watching a lot of sunsets and doing a lot of writing. I had a pretty definite sense of the ‘what’ in my life: environmental activism, social justice; ‘a better world’. But why? What was driving me? What were the unexamined assumptions lying underneath the ground of my being? What were the bits of history and experience buried in my past that were subtly influencing everything? I did a good amount of work during that time, but there’s still more to excavate, dust off, turn over in the light, and eventually, place back down, but in the ‘right’ place, not just accidentally fallen.
This is the kind of work that, I think, can make a major difference in our organizations as well: getting to know our ‘whys’, sharing our beliefs, unearthing our motivations. Trouble is, there seems to be little time for it, caught up as we get in delivering our programs, managing the information, maintaining the communication. It’s slow (generally, though there can be sudden ‘aha!’ moments that make it all worthwhile – much like archaeology, I suppose) and it can be difficult – emotions, fears, egos all get involved. Sometimes, I get the feeling it can be seen as unnecessary – why is this conversation going on so long when there is work to do? Retreats can help create that space where deeper sharing can happen, both in structured and spontaneous fashion. Go-arounds, I think, are crucial, as well as taking time to watch inspiring films and go through guided activities. Taking time to revisit a vision/mission statement and discuss it regularly, as new members enter the organization and older ones move on, also seems important and, in my experience, can get overlooked. Making the organization space reflect values and beliefs is another sound strategy, and everyone can be invited to participate as creatively as they wish.
A few weeks ago I asked for some money from our budget to buy some posters, such as ‘How to Build Community’. It’s now in our kitchen, and though it fades a little into the background, it helps create a sort of gentle hum that quietly reinforces all of our efforts, a little smiling face looking back saying ‘yes, this is right’. A few months ago, in March, I biked out to the east end of Montreal, home to one of the largest petroleum refining centres in North America, because I had begun to feel a pull to visit sites of environmental destruction, to bear witness and to buttress my daily activism in whatever form it takes with a deeper awareness of the realities outside the city. I suppose this was about why, for me. I ended up making a short video from the trip, which was in fact also part scouting for an action we did on the first of April where we shut down traffic running along Sherbrooke. I know that after the bike trip, I felt a much deeper conviction about the action and also a stronger bond with the organizing team. I know the why helped.
I’ve begun to tune into my anxiety, to be aware of it, to notice it and think about it, rather than trying to organize my way around it. I’m learning to sit with it, wherever it manifests, and try to alchemize it into gratitude and appreciation and conviction for change. I’m sinking into the why, learning to be comfortable in the dirt and the mud, learning to detach a little but not disconnect, to be comfortable not knowing and to translate that into what Fran Peavey calls strategic questioning. For such a broad and complicated question as that of sustainability, I think it is an essential skill, and one I hope to cultivate in myself and inspire in my group. I would love to hear anyone else’s stories, questions or reflections on the subject, and any activities or exercises that have helped bring you closer to a clearer sense of why – and the whats and hows that followed, a little bit of the organizational archaeology that can teach us lessons from the past, give us insight into the present, and potentially help us create our desired future.