Having a vision motivates us and others to pursue a goal—that is, as long as things go according to plan.

We see our project team delivering results on-time. We imagine our organization leading the industry in customer service. We picture ourselves crossing the finish line in the local 10k run.

But what happens when life (or the market or your boss or colleague) gets in the way?

It’s All In The Stars

Leading by vision is like navigating using the stars; it works well as long as the skies are clear and the sailing is smooth. When the clouds roll in, a deep-seated sense of purpose comes to the rescue. Purpose is a like an inner compass. It points us in the right direction when we can no longer see the way forward.

Average companies give their people something to work on. In contrast, the most innovative organizations give their people something to work toward.—Simon Sinek
Nothing builds a team faster than shared purpose. I am not talking about a formal mission statement. A sense of purpose is a feeling held by individuals or groups.

Why ask why? To uncover your true purpose.

The most powerful technique I have found to identify purpose is simply to ask why. Why are you are doing what you’re doing? Don’t stop at the first answer you come up with. Ask why again. Keep asking why until you arrive at an answer for which there is no further reason why—it just is so.

Here’s an example:

It’s late in the afternoon and most of your colleagues have left the office for the day. You are still at your desk trying to finish a document you promised to send to a customer.

Negative thoughts begin to creep into your mind. You think: ‘I’ll never get this done on time,’ and ‘No one appreciates my efforts.’

You feel your motivation slipping away. But before you call it quits, you decide to try the why technique.

You ask yourself the first why question:

Q: Why do I want to finish the document?

A: To keep my promise to the customer.

Then you drill down with additional why questions.

Q: Why is that important?

A: To live up to my reputation as someone who delivers.

Q: Why do you care about that?

A: Because being someone who does what they say makes me feel good about myself.

You’ve just identified your purpose—feeling good about yourself. Note how different this purpose is from “finishing the document.” Instead of being annoyed, you are proud to honor your commitment. You are no longer distracted by negative thoughts. You complete the work and head home with a sense of accomplishment.

What’s To Do?

Stop and ask why. Ask why several times to identify the root purpose(s) behind your goals.

Verify your answers. Before proceeding, check that your reasons why are based on facts and not just wishful assumptions.

Facilitate the discussion. The why method also works in teams or large groups. As a leader, facilitate the discussion by asking why and challenging the group to validate the answers.

Act on it. After surfacing your true purpose, let it guide your actions and decisions.


Ohno T. (1988). Toyota Production System. Portland, OR: Productivity, Inc.

Ries, E. (2010). The Five Whys for Startups. Harvard Business Review.

Sinek S. (2009). Start with Why. New York: Penguin.

Image courtesy of Bart Everson / CC BY 2.0