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Start with "Why"

  • Published
  • By Col. Mike Hornitschek
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing commander
Great leaders always strive to improve their skills, and reading about leadership is one of the best time-tested methods to build knowledge of the art--professional reading never goes out of style. 

After having been introduced to the author by Gen. Raymond Johns Jr. (commander, Air Mobility Command) at Phoenix Rally a few months ago, I in turn introduced my wing leadership to the book, "Start With Why" by Simon Sinek, as part of our periodic Leadership University discussions.

Sinek taught us that in a world of very limited resources, leaders and organizations that focused their precious time on helping their work force understand why they exist actually had the most efficient (and hence successful) organizations because very little energy was wasted on non-value-added activity. Sound familiar to anyone?

The ideas presented in the book also fall right in line with the work we've been undertaking to create a better customer service atmosphere throughout the base. We all have customers, and if employees understand why their customers exist, they will be inclined to provide them better service. Sinek describes a way of thinking, acting and communicating that inspires others to "advance their ideas and their vision." He says that there is a common thread with the most influential leaders; they "all think, act and communicate the exact same way" and that they are not driven by what they do, but rather why they do it.

Sinek talks about how most people understand "what" they do for an organization, but that very few know why they do it. For instance, doing something for profit is not a "why" ... it's a result. Knowing why the organization exists establishes an expectation for performance.

Boiling it down, "why" is an understanding of the organization's purpose for existence and forms the core belief for how business is conducted. Thoughtful contemplation of the 375th's mission statement "to enable combat power" conclusively reveals why the 375 AMW exists: we very simply exist to make everyone else more successful at what they do. That's it. It's as simple as that, that's why we exist.

Think about it, every single activity the 375th does from aircraft ops to communications is ultimately designed to make some other person more successful at what they do in providing for our nation's defense. Once you understand that, it becomes very easy to modify your behavior so that you walk away from every customer encounter asking "how did I just make that person happier and more successful in what they needed to do?"

Our customers require a service or a product to train or equip them to do their job. Whether it's education, mobility gear, a DV movement, or care for our families, they use these services to become successful at our mission and lives. Certainly many of the services we provide are mandated but there are many other services we provide where we should be asking ourselves why we do this? By asking this question, we ensure that the "what" and "how" of each activity is in harmony with the "why."

Take the example of the train industry. The train industry was big business in the 1800's and changed the landscape of the country, but only had its sight set on what it could do--keep as many trains moving on the train tracks as possible, instead of the why the railroads existed--transportation to build a great new nation. Had the railroads focused on the "why" of their existence, the industry might have developed new technologies and expanded into automobiles, trucks, busses, and air planes, and possibly controlled all modes of transportation in the country (one could debate whether that would be good for the country, but clearly demonstrates a missed opportunity for the railroads due to constrained thinking).

Using this example, it's plain to see that we cannot rely on the status quo. That's not to say that things are broken, but there are opportunities where if we consider "why" we are doing something then we can either eliminate it or make it better and ensure we take pride in ownership. That pride is demonstrated to others who now share in the commitment to belong to the organization. The belief in why the organization exists leads to loyalty.

Ask yourself the honest question, "Do people want to belong to your unit?" If so, why? If not, why? Great leaders will win the hearts and minds of the personnel in the organization. This is done by looking out for the best interest of all and not by striving for personal gain. Leaders also need to own the culture of the organization and create an environment where people feel safe voicing their ideas, and not be the sole person to come up with good ideas.

This speaks to the heart of my belief that leaders exist to do two fundamental things: provide atmosphere and resources. Leaders need to provide vision, create an environment where initiative is highly valued in pursuit of that vision, and then enable it through the smart allocation of financial or manpower resources.

If we can learn to implement this philosophy, we will ensure that we stay on the right trajectory for "outshining, outserving, and outperforming" not only for our upcoming Combined Unit Inspection, but also each and every day thereafter as we strive to have a workforce loyal to the mission and vision of the 375th Air Mobility Wing, the Air Force and our nation. Air power!