Remember “Why”

Like many Americans, I was transfixed and horrified by the multi-part Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam war.  Among the failures of leadership during that conflict were the many instances of soldiers and marines suffering hardship, injury and death to take a hill, only to be ordered to abandon the hill a few days later and allow the enemy to re-occupy the hill – exactly as they had been doing a few days earlier.

I can’t imaging the grief felt by families who lost a loved one to such fruitless efforts. Many of them surely were watching the documentary, asking “why?”. Many soldiers and marines, as they were ordered to take a hill they knew they might immediately be ordered to abandon, had to ask “why?”. The answers were never satisfactory, giving a glimpse into the deeper pathology of the Vietnam strategy.

It reminds me of something I heard from a grizzled US Army Ranger sergeant during my young officer preparation training. He said: “remember, when providing orders to those you’ll lead into battle, to never forget the “five W’s”: Who/What/Where/When/Why”.

The last one was a bit of surprise since there was a certain sort of leader who basically felt there were only four important W’s – that there was no reason to tell the soldiers “why”. You and they only had one thing to worry about – take the objective. This particular sergeant was a hard-ass type guy, and I assumed he was one of the “why doesn’t matter” guys. But I was wrong.

This sergeant went on to say “Americans need to know why” (this is of course also true for many other people around the world). If you’re going to ask someone to risk it all, you owe them a reason.

I think this applies to our civilian world as well.

I’m written about the important of why before. I’ve also said that if I were to distill the essence of leadership to a single word (which would be unfair, but IF I were asked to do that), the word I’d choose is “clarity”. Clarity focuses the synergistic strengths of the team. Clarity eliminates confusion and reduces doubt. And clarity can encompass “why”.

I have tried to stitch together a whole view when setting objectives for my teams over the years – not only the “why”, but how our team’s contributions will support the greater “why” of the organization. I’m sure my success in this regard has been spotty, but I remain convinced of it’s importance.

How often have you set down with your team and articulated your team’s “why”?

It’s the simple things that set great leaders apart.

Good luck!