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Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

It is common for the independent school head to speak of WHAT the school is and HOW the school accomplishes this WHAT.  We speak of the profile of our school’s graduate and all of the WHATs he or she develops in our care.  Additionally, independent school marketing materials are replete with pictures and anecdotes touting WHAT are the exceptional qualities of the school and WHAT the students will gain through their experience at our school.  Occasionally the marketing materials will reflect HOW the school accomplishes the WHAT.  We speak of WHAT students learn by WHEN.  We speak of WHAT we expect of students in our stead and WHAT parents can do to support their journey.  We speak of faculty to student ratios, small class sizes, and the percentage of faculty with post-graduate degrees. All WHATs.  We occasionally speak of the HOWs of our pedagogy or the HOWs of our learning environments.  Using just WHATs and some HOWs, we speak of the components of our schools, as if we are giving the recipe, the list of ingredients and instructions for a good education. What seems to be missing in conversations and materials of independent schools is emphasis on the WHY.

Simon Sinek argues in his 2009 book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, that it is more important to start with WHY we do what we do than it is to begin with WHAT we do.  Not a book about education, Sinek’s book offers good insights for independent school leaders and those promoting the school’s mission.

Inspired by the Golden Circle in mathematics, Sinek says inspiring, which he suggests is the leader’s primary role, starts with understanding deeply and articulating passionately the WHY in everything we do.

Rather than the normal progression of explaining WHAT we do, HOW we do it, then WHY we do it (an outside in approach), Sinek suggests a model of working from the inside out.  Start with the WHY followed by the HOW and then the WHAT.  The WHY is the activating belief, basic assumptions, purpose, clear mission, vision.  The WHY is why you bother. WHY you do the WHAT.  The HOW is the differentiated value proposition, the proprietary process:   HOW you do the WHAT.  The WHAT is the tangibles, the outcomes, experiences, and services you offer.

The WHY is a school’s mission; the WHY is a school’s beliefs.  Instead of a focus on WHAT our programs look like and HOW we implement them, the WHY speaks to the reason a school exists, WHY we are dedicated to making all of the WHATs and HOWs add up to fulfilling, in an excellent and exceptional way, the WHY.

The WHY of independent schools is that we exist because we believe that the education process is best designed and delivered when unencumbered by the bureaucratic regulations of publicly funded schools.  Our WHY we exist includes our belief that an academic curriculum must incorporate ethical and moral development.  Our WHY we exist includes our belief that no child should ‘fall through the cracks’ and all children should be known and loved.  The WHY of faith based independent schools includes the strongly held belief that the education and development of children should encompass spiritual education.  The WHY of international independent schools includes a strongly held belief that students should be exposed to a comprehensive global understanding and experiences.

Building on Sinek’s argument that we should start with WHY, school communications, messaging, and interactions of all kinds should articulate clearly the WHY.  People buy the WHY, not the WHAT.  If the focus remains on the WHAT, families are less able to understand the value of our school for their family.  Families will have to compare our school to other schools based purely on WHAT the school does because we have not provided them the WHY as a differentiator.  Independent schools provide greater differentiation from alternative school options using WHY.  When we start with WHY, believers are created and loyalty is engendered.

For school leaders, starting with WHY inspires those we lead.  It allows us to make better hiring decisions when we are able to attract faculty and staff who believe in the WHY of the school.  It allows us to differentiate our school for those from whom we solicit donations.  We must inform our community of the HOW and the WHAT, however, starting with WHY brings stakeholders into clearer focus on the mission at hand, creating a passionate partnership built upon the mutually embraced WHY.

Admissions, marketing materials, and face-to face interactions should all begin with WHY.  Starting with WHY enhances our efforts to effectively identify appropriate fits for new students and their families, creating greater loyalty from matriculating families than would be the case from a WHAT decision.

According to Sinek, “It all starts with clarity.  You have to know WHY you do WHAT you do.  People do not buy WHAT you do; they buy WHY you do it.  So it follows that if you don’t know WHY you do WHAT you do, how will anyone else?”

What will it take for our WHY to become commonplace and in the forefront of all of our interactions, marketing materials, public conversations, speeches, faculty discussions, and classroom correspondence?  It will take some individual and collective shifts in our habitual ways of thinking and talking about our school.  But the effect, I believe, of starting more commonly with WHY will be that our WHY will spread from our campuses to the carpool lines, coffee groups, playground conversations, and dinner party discussions.  Our WHY will trump the very usual WHAT messages of other schools, and families and students will be more attracted to us because they also believe in our WHY.  Knowing our WHY, families and students can not only buy, but they can buy in as full, loyal, trusting partners because we deliberately choose to start with WHY.

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