The Politics of Leadership Start with Why

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Who are our leaders? Are they always the best ones for the job? History tells us no. But the bad leaders must have taken their position by force and the good leaders through a democratic process, right? No, even when the process is democratic, we can still vote for corrupt leadership (from the fall of Rome to WWII), and in cases like the American Revolution and the freeing of the slaves, sometimes good leadership came by way of force. Merit and virtue are important but what speaks to people is connection, emotions, shared beliefs, and representation. And those that actually speak to people, not just talk about themselves and their merits, are the ones to sway the people. And this has nothing to do with the virtue of the leader; it's in spite of it. It's about why you do it and your why doesn't always have to be just, it just has to resonate.

Many believe we live in a rational world, but we don't. We live in a subjective world where human decisions are subjective. We see the sun, and we see a god, we see a flower, and we think love. Animals don't think this way; they are purely in the objective. We humans have always been subjective and are always taken aback when we are reminded of this, and our responsive itself is subjective. To even believe we are rational in the first place is irrational, further proof of our subjective nature. No one is rational, if we were we would stand looking at a breakfast menu for the rest of our lives weighing the pros and cons of each decision.

The way we behave and think, the way we make decisions cannot be seen by the naked eye. We want it to me measurable in polls and graphs but it cannot. But it can be decoded.

Simon Sinek speaks to this in his TED Talk. He says:

Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. ... But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by ‘why’ I don’t mean ‘to make a profit.’ That’s a result. It’s always a result. By ‘why,’ I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? As a result, the way we think, we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in, it’s obvious. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations — regardless of their size, regardless of their industry — all think, act and communicate from the inside out.

Let me give you an example. I use Apple because they’re easy to understand and everybody gets it. If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this: ‘We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. Want to buy one?’ ‘Meh.’ That’s how most of us communicate. That’s how most marketing and sales are done; that’s how we communicate interpersonally. We say what we do; we say how we’re different or better and we expect some sort of a behavior, a purchase, a vote, something like that.

This is the — I'm better than you vote for me — approach. For some that's nice, they want to know you're competent and you know what you're doing, so just leave it up to you. These are the facts and figures folks: You're smarter than me, you got degrees that I don't, so I will hire you as my accountant. They are used to living their life this way.

Here’s how Apple actually communicates. ‘Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. ...’ [P]eople don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.

Challenging the status quo, I get that, I'm down with that because that's how I feel. You're not selling a result; you're selling me on me. A product or a result can never be like me, but you, you can be like me. I can build a relationship and trust with you; I can't do that with facts and figures. I can't do that with you telling me I'm supposed to vote for you. I want to know why.

This explains why every single person in this room is perfectly comfortable buying a computer from Apple. ... People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.

This is who we need. This is what our country needs right now.

None of what I’m telling you is my opinion. It’s all grounded in the tenets of biology. Not psychology, biology. If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle. Our newest brain, our Homo sapien brain, our neocortex, corresponds with the ‘what’ level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains, and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, and it has no capacity for language.

In other words, when we communicate from the outside in, yes, people can understand vast amounts of complicated information like features and benefits and facts and figures. It just doesn’t drive behavior. When we can communicate from the inside out, we’re talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior, and then we allow people to rationalize it with the tangible things we say and do. This is where gut decisions come from. Sometimes you can give somebody all the facts and figures, and they say, ‘I know what all the facts and details say, but it just doesn’t feel right.’ Why would we use that verb, it doesn’t ‘feel’ right? Because the part of the brain that controls decision-making doesn’t control language. The best we can muster up is, ‘I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right.’ ... It’s all happening here in your limbic brain, the part of the brain that controls decision-making and not language.

Some folks are shocked when people aren't moved by facts and think, hey this is new, we must live in a post-facts world. But we've never been moved by facts. But we never say that fact was moving, a feeling is moving. We are literally moved by how we feel. A fact might say a certain decision could hurt my best interest, but that's now how I feel. In fact, if I go the way you tell me, I feel powerless, like I'm doing it because you forced me. I also feel weak and embarrassed. So even if it does hurt me, I'd rather be hurt fiscally than be hurt personally and have my emotions battered.

But if you don’t know why you do what you do, and people respond to why you do what you do, then how will you ever get people to vote for you, or buy something from you, or, more importantly, be loyal and want to be a part of what it is that you do. ... [Y]ou know, if you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money, but if they believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.

Most people don’t know about Samuel Pierpont Langley. And back in the early 20th century, the pursuit of powered man flight was like the dot com of the day. Everybody was trying it. And Samuel Pierpont Langley had, what we assume, to be the recipe for success. Even now, you ask people, ‘Why did your product or why did your company fail?’ and people always give you the same permutation of the same three things: under-capitalized, the wrong people, bad market conditions. It’s always the same three things, so let’s explore that. Samuel Pierpont Langley was given 50,000 dollars by the War Department to figure out this flying machine. Money was no problem. He held a seat at Harvard and worked at the Smithsonian and was extremely well-connected; he knew all the big minds of the day. He hired the best minds money could find and the market conditions were fantastic. The New York Times followed him around everywhere, and everyone was rooting for Langley. Then how come we’ve never heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?

A few hundred miles away in Dayton Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright, they had none of what we consider to be the recipe for success. They had no money; they paid for their dream with the proceeds from their bicycle shop; not a single person on the Wright brothers’ team had a college education, not even Orville or Wilbur; and The New York Times followed them around nowhere.

The difference was, Orville and Wilbur were driven by a cause, by a purpose, by a belief. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it’ll change the course of the world. Samuel Pierpont Langley was different. He wanted to be rich, and he wanted to be famous. He was in pursuit of the result. He was in pursuit of the riches. And lo and behold, look what happened. The people who believed in the Wright brothers’ dream worked with them with blood and sweat and tears. The others just worked for the paycheck. They tell stories of how every time the Wright brothers went out, they would have to take five sets of parts, because that’s how many times they would crash before supper.

And, eventually, on December 17th, 1903, the Wright brothers took flight, and no one was there to even experience it. We found out about it a few days later.

You can be reluctant, or you can be passionate. People want to feel like they are part of something special, like they are changing the world, they love feeling like the underdogs. Who writes movies about the favorites? They want to feel like they are in the know of something everyone else is missing, something that the oddsmakers don't understand, something even the press completely miss. All eyes can be one place but the action someplace else, and the people in that someplace else love that. To grow without notice. And the favorite? It's hard to be passionate if you think you got it in the bag, it's hard to rally the troops and get everyone you know mobilized and excited. You can have the recipe for success, but if it's not about why and only about the result, no one will work that hard. They will dial it in.

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.

What do you believe? What's your personal motto? What's your slogan? A great example is with Hillary Clinton, "I'm with her." Is it about a person or is it about a cause? "Hope" is a cause, "Change" is a cause. "Love Trumps Hate" puts the emphasis back onto a person, even if it's a person you do not like. It gives them attention without aligning you with a cause. Compare this to "Make America Great Again." If you talk about yourself, you will attract those who like you. You talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe. Purpose driven or person driven. And this is a matter of perception. You can be arrogant or selfless, but in leadership what matters is how you are perceived. For better or worse.

As we said before, the recipe for success is money and the right people and the right market conditions. You should have success then. Look at TiVo. From the time TiVo came out about eight or nine years ago to this current day, they are the single highest-quality product on the market, hands down, there is no dispute. They were extremely well-funded. Market conditions were fantastic. I mean, we use TiVo as verb. I TiVo stuff on my piece-of-junk Time Warner DVR all the time.

But TiVo’s a commercial failure. They’ve never made money. And when they went IPO, their stock was at about 30 or 40 dollars and then plummeted, and it’s never traded above 10. In fact, I don’t think it’s even traded above six, except for a couple of little spikes.

Because you see, when TiVo launched their product, they told us all what they had. They said, ‘We have a product that pauses live TV, skips commercials, rewinds live TV and memorizes your viewing habits without you even asking.’ And the cynical majority said, ‘We don’t believe you. We don’t need it. We don’t like it. You’re scaring us.’

What if they had said, ‘If you’re the kind of person who likes to have total control over every aspect of your life, boy, do we have a product for you. It pauses live TV, skips commercials, memorizes your viewing habits, etc., etc.’ People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it, and what you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe.

The recipe for success isn't enough if you don't have a clear purpose. If it's about you, your legacy — Here's what kind of person I am — then people won't like you. But if it's about: What kind of person are you? Are you like me? Are you this kind of person? People will vote for you even if they don't like you. Is your purpose self-centered or other-centered? Even if you are a self-centered person, if your message is other-centered, you will be more effective than the other-centered person who has a self-centered message. You can call this manipulation or whatever else you want, but any leader is free to speak to the masses. No one is stopping a good leader from doing this, and in fact, a good leader should want to do this. If not, you will get this reaction: "We don't believe you. We don't need it. We don't like it. You're scaring us."

In the summer of 1963, 250,000 people showed up on the mall in Washington to hear Dr. King speak. They sent out no invitations, and there was no website to check the date. How do you do that? Well, Dr. King wasn’t the only man in America who was a great orator. He wasn’t the only man in America who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. In fact, some of his ideas were bad. But he had a gift. He didn’t go around telling people what needed to change in America. He went around and told people what he believed. ‘I believe, I believe, I believe,’ he told people. And people who believed what he believed took his cause, and they made it their own, and they told people. And some of those people created structures to get the word out to even more people. And lo and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day at the right time to hear him speak.

How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves. It’s what they believed about America that got them to travel in a bus for eight hours to stand in the sun in Washington in the middle of August. It’s what they believed, and it wasn’t about black versus white: 25% of the audience was white.

Dr. King believed that there are two types of laws in this world: those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by men. And not until all the laws that are made by men are consistent with the laws made by the higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happened that the Civil Rights Movement was the perfect thing to help him bring his cause to life. We followed, not for him, but for ourselves. By the way, he gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.

Listen to politicians now, with their comprehensive 12-point plans. They’re not inspiring anybody. Because there are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us. Whether they’re individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. And it’s those who start with ‘why’ that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.

People will overlook a lack of defined plans if you tell them what you believe. They want authentic not scripted. Plans are important but more important are beliefs. Plans, we assume can come later. But we want to know what you believe now. In plain language. To know what you're saying is meant for us, not for your inner circle who understand your jargon. A vote for him or her should feel like a vote for me. The leader is the proxy. We take an insult to them personally because it feels like an insult to ourselves. Because it's not about them, it's about us (and if they forget, we will remind them) and the one who makes this clear is the one we support. We will work just enough for money, but we will work doggedly for beliefs. Like I said, for better or worse.

Hopefully, good potential leaders of the future will remember this message (though history has given countless ignored reminders): Do not enjoy the view from 10,000 feet above and keep your eyes on the street. Or you might just fall 10,000 feet and be eaten by the streets.

People want a cause, something to support. You can't have motivation without a cause; it's like having a sports fan without a sports team. A cause can be anything, from improving the rights of the downtrodden and equality for all people, but it can also be a religion, a nation, or a race. And if good leaders offer up nothing other than themselves as a cause, then any cause will do. It's not a utopia, and inspiring underdog stories aren't always for a good cause. The narrative says nothing about the quality of the protagonists. A powerful country isn't always wrong, and an underdog isn't always right.

We are moved by narratives, and the best person or cause may not rise to the top, but the best narrative will. No one thinks they are the bad guy; everyone thinks they are the heroes. And a small group going against any establishment thinks they are the plucky band of rebels fighting the Empire. Why else would terrorists risk their lives? They don't do it for a person or some plan; they do it for a cause. And an unjust group in power, what narrative do they use to stay in power? They have their members believe they are always being persecuted and the threat against them greater than it is. Five million will believe they are bullied back five thousand. No, even when the process is democratic, we can still vote for corrupt leadership.

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