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Toolbox | Using the Power of ‘Why’ to Build Leadership

By Curt Stedron  |  February 1, 2022

Leadership guru Simon Sinek’s 2009 TED Talk, “Start With Why,” offered a fascinating new theory on why leaders attract followers. His thesis was that the same forces that make consumers loyal to brands also cement the bond between leaders and their supporters.

Sinek’s formulation of this relationship is now legend: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” He argued that this why—this purpose, this raison d’être—was the glue that connected a leader’s vision to a potential follower’s actions. And he went on to suggest that this bond is fundamentally emotional, a response of the right brain to the powerful “leadership brand” embedded in that why.

All legislators are leaders. Some have formal leadership titles—speaker, minority leader, committee chair—but all constantly exercise informal leadership, both in the legislature and in their communities. So how might Sinek’s theory apply within the legislative world? How can legislative leaders use the power of why to build a brand that truly increases support for their policy agendas?

The obvious first step is for leaders to develop a clear understanding of their core why. This is easier said than done in a legislative environment focused on whats: topics and subtopics; bills and resolutions; constituent concerns and complaints. Any sense of a clarifying why runs a constant risk of being drowned out by this wide spectrum of competing interests.

One way to overcome this hurdle is to engage in a simple thinking exercise designed to help crystalize a sense of your larger why. Ask yourself the questions below and jot down your answers:

  1. What policy area or aspect of the legislative institution am I most passionate about? On what topic am I willing to become not just an expert but the expert? Because if a group is lost in the forest, the person who possesses the critical knowledge—the way home—is automatically the leader.
  2. Once that policy or institutional area is defined, ask yourself: As a knowledge leader in this area, what enduring achievement do I aspire to leave to future generations?

The words you’ve just written down contain the core ingredients of your legislative leadership why. And this language also communicates that vision to others in an emotionally resonant manner.

Keep Your Message on Brand

The second step to broadcasting a compelling why is to ensure that our actions are in constant alignment with the core message of our leadership brand. In 2003, the office supply giant Staples reinvented its brand with a large red “easy button.” The branding message was clear: Staples makes shopping for office supplies effortless. But during a series of subsequent store visits, C-suite managers discovered that the best-selling, highest-demand products were all displayed at the back of the stores so shoppers would be forced to browse through other sections and make impulse purchases. Unfortunately, this meant that locating those high-demand items was anything but easy. Realizing that this practice clashed with Staples’ new brand message, a change was made to reverse the floorplan of the store even though it hurt the company’s bottom line. And in doing so, Staples’ brand alignment was restored.

Oftentimes, the push-pull nature of the legislative process can lure us off the path of our why. Compromises and concessions are often necessary to advance goals, but when those actions are in direct conflict with our larger purpose, our brand is weakened, and the bond between leader and loyal follower is damaged. So constantly ask yourself:

Are my actions in alignment with my communicated brand?

Is there a consistency between my articulated purpose and the things I do and say in the legislature?

Remember Sinek’s second claim: The bond between leader and follower is primarily emotional, and when our actions contradict our stated brand, our followers’ emotional responses often are disappointment and disillusionment instead of confidence and trust.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Yet so much of our legislative work is about our whats, leading to splintered efforts and fractured coalitions. But when legislative leaders reorient their focus to a powerful why, to an emotionally compelling brand message that is consistent with their actions, they find that their followers grow in number, in enthusiasm and in alignment with the larger cause.

Curt Stedron is the director of NCSL’s Legislative Training Institute.

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