My heart was racing having just finished yet another live fire training exercise with a platoon of soon to be Infantry Officers when I heard one of the best leadership maxims ever shared with me. “For as long as the American fighting man has carried out the last 500 meters of diplomacy he has needed to know why. Always give your Marines the why behind the attack gentlemen.”
It’s so rudimentary and fundamental and yet I consistently see people who fail to do so in the business world. If you want to convince someone to scale a mountain, jump into freezing cold water, or charge a machine gun bunker where they will risk life and limb you have to give them a good reason why. Poor leaders believe that they can rest on their positional power and use the age old excuse that our parents would spit out to our complete and utter irritation as children. “You should do it because I told you so. That’s why”
This type of reasoning for why your child, your co-worker, or your friends should do something to help you accomplish a task is the epitome of laziness. Give other people a lazy reason why they should accomplish something and I promise you laziness is what you will receive in return. Simon Sinek made the argument for “starting with why” in his most recent book and I find it to be a compelling argument for accomplishing even the most menial tasks. Viktor Frankel survived multiple concentration camps by resorting to a Friedrich Nietzche quote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
There are countless examples of successful people using their “why” to drive them or their organization to accomplish any goal. For Elon Musk it has always been that doing things the way we have always done them is an unacceptable response to our lack of innovation in society. This why is what propelled him to create disruption in the financial technology, space, and motor vehicle industries. Yet the most compelling story of giving your people their “Why” is from the American Revolution.
After George Washington was given command of the Continental Army in the revolutionary war he gained serious momentum in Massachusetts at the battles of Lexington and Concord. He understood that for a guerrilla army to win they had to gain and ride momentum. His army would later lose all of their momentum in the battle of Long Island as the British landed 30,000 troops on shore and absolutely routed Washington’s forces. Watching his men retreat from the field of battle and British Slaughter, Washington urged his men to reform the lines and stage a counter-attack. For the first time in his career he watched his own men disobey a direct order. He attempted to stage a charge himself in response. Fortunately for us, one of his aides de camp, forced him off the field of battle before he could gallop off to his own death.
This defeat is noted as having the worst impact on Washington. He admitted he was overcome with shame and despair after the slaughter in the battle of Long Island. In response King George Knighted the British General who was victorious and the English assumed they had all but routed the guerrilla forces. What was Washington’s response? He lined his men up to watch as British forces poured into New York to watch what was unfolding. Instead of shaming them, Washington had his officers step up in front of the men and read none other than the declaration of Independence.
In that moment of defeat, instead of wallowing in his own misery, Washington responded by reminding his men what they were fighting for. During revolutionary times this was affectionately referred to as “The Cause.” Washington in that moment, told his men that they were fighting for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He gave his men the why so that they would go on to slaughter the hessians in their sleep on Christmas. How does an army of farmers with pitch forks overthrow the greatest super-power in the world? Through reminding the men what it was exactly that they were fighting for. Giving them the why.
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John McCarthy is a Father, Son, Husband and former Marine Infantry Officer. He serves his local community and just wants to push people to be better humans. Check out the Tough Talk Podcast and other writings on this website to learn more.