What’s Your Why? Assessing the Motives of a Leader

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The more I study leadership the more I find myself focusing on one word – why. Why do we lead? Why do I lead? Why do you lead? It concerns me that I don’t hear this question being asked very often.

The Golden Circle Title
Simon Sinek once provided an excellent TED talk about how why related to organizational success (see How Great Leaders Inspire Action). His premise is that The Golden Circleeffective companies begin by understanding why they do what they do. He calls this The Golden Circle (see the illustration on the left). Every company has a how (process) and a what (product). But only successful companies have a compelling why (motivation).

This premise also provides an important leadership principle. Effective leaders should understand why they lead. I have adapted Sinek’s Golden circle into The GoLeadership Golden Circlelden Leadership Circle to illustrate this idea. Anyone can learn to do what we do as leaders – communicate, strategize, execute, etc. Similarly, we can all increase the effectiveness of our leadership by understanding who we are – things like our gifts, our abilities, our passions, our style, our personality, our character. However, the what and who of leadership is trumped by why we lead. If you lead to get rich this will define both who you are and what you do as a leader. If you lead because you are a religious zealot (think ISIS) it also defines your ‘who’ and your ‘what’. Furthermore, we will only produce our best when we are working with someone who shares our leadership ‘why’. This is why Donald Trump and ISIS are not bedfellows!

So why do we lead?

My research has led me to believe that there are three basic leadership motives:

  1. Me – Leadership is something that meets your personal need(s). This viewpoint defines you as the master of your domain. Therefore, what you consider to be good or valuable is what is good or valuable and becomes the reason you lead. Donald Trump appears to largely operate from this mindset.
  2. We – Leadership is something that meets a collective need. This mindset derives its motivation from the collective views of others. Democracies or organizations pursuing humanitarian needs often lead for ‘we’ reasons. The Boys & Girls Club is an example of a ‘we’ motive.
  3. He/Thee  Leadership is practiced because of a divine mandate. Therefore, leaders derive their purpose from a source outside of themselves. Whether it be God, a divine being or a force, the leaders raison d’ê·tre comes from an outside source. Mother Theresa is perhaps the most eminent modern example of this.

In practice, multiple motives can be present at the same time. For example, I could work for the Boys & Girls Club because I believe in their mission (We) but also have accepted my position because of the lucrative salary offer (Me). Or I could begin to serve as a minister (Thee) but change this motivation over time.

Leaders understand that our organizational why and leadership why are connected. These two golden circles have a symbiotic relationship and one feeds the other. When we fail to connect them we develop organizations which say one thing and do another. Or even worse, we create organizations that are not what we think they are.

What is your leadership why?

Note: WordPress glitched and sent this during an earlier draft. My apologies to those who have received this twice!


Head ShotDr. Jeff Suderman is a consultant, professor and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman



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