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Aktualisiert: 29. Apr. 2021

Simon Sinek popularized asking ‘why’ to uncover – or create – the driving force behind any endeavour, whether related to business, a political or societal cause, personal or other: why we do something is the foundation for the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of what we do.

Ask why!

If we have clarity about why we do something, we are also in a position to communicate much more powerfully. Sinek urges us to flip around the way we communicate: not by going on about ‘what’ we do (e.g. ‘we demonstrate against environmental policies’), or ‘how’ we do it (e.g. ‘we bring together a wide, inclusive coalition for non-violent protest’), but by starting with ‘why’ (e.g. ‘we believe it's the responsibility of every human being to protect this planet’).

In my own consulting work I used the concept to help develop a common vision of a newly merged department. It works. It's a simple concept that gets to the gist of things in a structured way.

A leader who can clarify the 'why' also empowers a team by leaving it to them to figure out the 'what' and 'how' of things to be done to achieve a goal, or adapt a plan without needing to rely on the leader to spell out everything.

Don't ask 'why'!

But using the concept is not the same thing as walking around asking people ‘why’.

Asking someone ‘why’ can challenge and put them in a defensive mode – ‘why did you do that?’ is probably the question we heard most often from our parents as a kid when we did something naughty. It breaks rapport rather than building it. It can be powerful precisely because it is so incisive: calling out bullshit and shaking things up. But most relationships are probably not strong enough for a ‘why’ to be productive.

A ‘why’ also elicits a surface-level, socially acceptable story, a justification rather than an open-minded, curious search for a meaningful, perhaps more truthful, answer.

It's for these reasons that asking ‘why’ is usually avoided in coaching, where a strong relationship between the coach and coachee is essential and where the goal is to go beyond surface-level chit chat, stories we tell others and ourselves and move towards richer elaboration of one's thoughts & feelings. These are the same reasons hostage negotiators avoid ‘why’: to build and maintain a strong relationship while at the same time figuring out what is going on.

A ‘why’ question can easily be reformulated as an open ‘what’ and ‘how’ question and still get at the same thing:

  • ‘Why do you do this?’ becomes ‘How does doing this help?’

  • ‘Why is this important to you?’ becomes ‘What makes this important to you?’

  • Or simply ‘tell me about…’

So, start with why, but don't start with why: starting with why we do something is a powerful way to convey our endeavour, but the word ‘why’ itself is often not the best word to use in a conversation.

Aktualisiert: 18. Feb. 2020

You don't climb a snowy mountain every day, not least half-naked only wearing shorts and boots. Neither do you usually walk barefoot in snow, do snow angels without clothes or jump into an ice-cold river. Yet, together with a bunch of great human beings I did all these things last week as part of a Wim Hof Method experience.

It has been a truly memorable week with many learnings, one of which was around empowerment: how do you empower people to perform out-of-the ordinary but certainly challenging actions and grow from it?

These are my reflections as a participant on what our trainers did and who they were as leaders:

  • They found the right balance between on one hand giving input and setting guardrails, and on other hand having us experience things for ourselves and moving within the guardrails, perhaps sometimes crashing against them. We chose how long to stay in the cold water, but were told that 2 minutes is all you need for the health benefits. They gave us several techniques how to get warm in the cold and we picked what suited us. But they also knew how to switch gears and direct us in critical situations: telling us to put on our clothes when we arrived on the peak of the mountain and helping us get into them.

  • They had an acute awareness, and were committed to learning and adapting the experience to the group. Every evening they would gather to review the day and see what would be the right course of action for the following day, taking into account the performance and state of the group. They were role models in being acutely aware of what was going on. That awareness put them in control to make things even better.

  • They exuded trust. It wasn't anything particular they did (at least that I could notice), but rather it was who they were – you could tell they lived this in their own life: the power of cold exposure, breathing and mindset. And you could feel that they really cared and had the best in mind for you – for your physical health and mental growth.

The trust I placed in my trainers, their awareness and commitment to learning, and the skills I learnt from them and the guardrails set by them meant that I took full responsibility for my experience:

  • Accepting what is and what is not in my control. When I accepted the cold as given, I could then fully own how I dealt with it: how I dealt with the thoughts running through my head, how I reacted to other people's reactions, and how I could still keep my body warm. Why take the cold as given and not just put on clothes? Because sometimes life doesn't give us clothes, we cannot always control what life throws at us, but we are always in full control over how we deal with it. And the harsh simplicity of the cold is a great teacher for that reality.

  • Setting an intention. Every day, we were encouraged to set an intention for what we wanted to do, try out or how we wanted to approach things. It gave me focus and put me in the driving seat. I would jump into the river, stay longer than 2 minutes in cold water, or do a snow angel without clothes not because others around me would do it, but because that was my intention for the day.

  • Being more aware of what is going on, e.g. being aware of the time the body needs to warm up once you are out of the cold and keeping focus in the meantime (as our trainers said, “it's not over till it's over”). Beside the increased physical awareness for what is going on in my body, I also became more aware of what is going on in my mind. What the cold showed me was that what is going on in my mind is not what is 'really' going on (whatever that 'really' is): when I stepped into the ice-cold river, all the stories and thoughts in my head (e.g. How should I best go into the water? Is this really healthy? What if I can't handle it?) vanished and what was left was the cold – and the moment of being in the cold. It was a moment of being aware of the present. And it was a lesson in being aware of what is thought and what isn't it. I believe our trainers were role-models in being more aware as the basis for learning.

I am grateful to our trainers - Douwe & Josephine - for what was a journey of personal growth and a lesson in how to empower others. I am also grateful to the other participants with who I shared this journey. I will write another post on what I learned from our group dynamic about how teams can climb the metaphorical mountain.

The purpose of this blog - share ideas on how to empower in politics, business, life

I have started this blog as a way to create something that may be of value to you – if, like me, you are curious how to empower in ...

  • Politics: enhance the power of people to take responsibility for how they want to live together

  • Business: simplify your organization and empower your team

  • Life: this is the foundation of everything and unexpectedly (at least for me for a long time) linked to the above: how to find fulfillment and balance in one's own life

It's a way to share ideas that I come across – perhaps you find them meaningful. It's a way to clarify my own thinking, by actually putting thoughts into words and committing them to paper (and '1's and '0's). It's a way to create something – as a balance to and complement to consuming others' thoughts, a.k.a. reading, which I perhaps do more than is good for me.

What are those ideas I am likely going to share?

One way to answer this: anything to do with what I spend most of my time doing – consulting organizations trying to simplify their structure & processes or navigating significant change; training and coaching consultants, managers, activists to empower them to empower others; reflecting on my own thinking, emotions and choices as the basis to grow as a person. Empowerment is the common thread running through all these activities.

Another way to answer the question: by looking at what I read, which can be anything from philosophy (Ancient Greek/Roman, Bertrand Russell, Kierkegaard, Zen/Tao), politics (political campaigning, biographies of the great political leaders, visions for a European federation), history (esp. those like Yuval Noah Harari or Paul Kennedy who take a birds-eye view to history) to health (sleep, nutrition, mindfulness) and finances. The list changes as interests evolve, but it's certainly less the daily ups-and-downs of the news cycle that I want to comment on, but more the enduring ideas and how they can be applied to specific situations in politics, business and life.

But what grabs my attention more than any particular area or topic is the links between them, the parallels and overlaps, the metaphors and conclusions applicable to more than one field – and the potential for creating something new from that space. While for a long time this looked to me only like intellectual curiosity, it is recently that I have realized how this applies to my own life and work. Some examples:

  • Applying ideas from military strategy & tactics to a political campaign

  • Applying ideas that motivate & commit people to volunteer for a cause to empowering employees to support a difficult yet necessary transformation program including cost reduction

  • Applying ideas from psychotherapy and Stoicism to taking risks in life

And I am curious to see what else there is.

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