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The power of WHY when setting goals

Take time to focus on values, beliefs, needs, and passions.
4 min read

When we’re setting goals, it’s natural to be focused on the What and How. Whether it’s a personal resolution for New Year’s or a work-related goal for the upcoming fiscal year, how can you set yourself up for success?

Communicate your goals.

According to goal-setting experts such as Bev Bachel, author of What Do You Really Want?, successful goal-setters take these three steps: 1) they write down their goal, 2) they say it aloud and 3) they share it with others. “Verbalizing your goals increases accountability, to be sure,” says Bachel. “But it also invites others to support you.”

From personal goal to shared vision

If you want others to buy into and endorse a goal—you have to communicate WHY you’re setting the goal in the first place.

But what if you want others to do more than support you? What if you want them to join you in working toward that goal, share your passion—even make your vision their own? Again, the key is communication. But this time, it’s not only about communicating WHAT the goal is and HOW you’ll reach it. If you want others to buy into and endorse a goal—you have to communicate WHY you’re setting the goal in the first place. Getting others to align around a vision means learning how to reflect upon—and then communicate—your personal Why.

It’s easy to forget the Why when setting yearly goals, whether personal or professional. Taking time to focus on the values, beliefs, needs, and passions that drive you is critical to successfully reaching—and sharing—goals. “Listening to our internal motivators we’re reminded of our purpose and focus,” says Bachel. “And when we articulate those motivators to others, that’s when one person’s goal has the potential to become something much larger: a shared vision.”

Here are two examples from the worlds of marketing and social change of how communicating your personal Why is an incredibly powerful skill to cultivate.

From buying to buying into

Former ad man and author Simon Sinek is known for his book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Others to Take Action. He’s also known for the following maxim, which he offered in his TED Talk, the fourth most viewed at “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

To explain this, Sinek draws three concentric circles, with WHY in the center, HOW in the next ring out, and WHAT in the outer ring. He claims that when we sell our ideas, we too often begin with the What. As an example of beginning with Why, he notes how Apple marketing doesn’t say, “Here’s a great computer you should buy.” Instead, it says: “We believe in thinking differently.” Starting with the Why enables us to connect with others—in Apple’s case, electronics consumers—on a personal, emotional, value-laden level. As Sinek says, “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.” From a marketing and sales perspective, that kind of connection turns customers into raving fans.

Extend the notion of “buying” electronics to “buying into” an idea or vision, and you begin to understand the power of Why. Leaders who can clearly and inspirationally articulate their Whys can change the world. Just ask Marshall Ganz.

From self to us to now

Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Ganz teaches a story-based leadership practice called “public narrative,” which has helped leaders and organizations around the world advance their causes by communicating their Whys.

Ganz, who worked as an organizer in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, says leaders need to know how to tell three stories: the Story of Self, the Story of Us, and the Story of Now.

  • The Story of Self is the narrative of your personal Why—how you got here and what values led you to commit to a goal, to craft a vision, or to choose a course of action.
  • The Story of Us tells how others around you share those values.
  • The Story of Now tells what the urgent challenge is to those values that demands action now.

For a great demonstration of Ganz’s public narrative principles, watch Scott Harrison’s speech at the Big Omaha tech conference in 2010. Harrison is the founder of charity: water, an organization dedicated to bringing clean drinking water to developing countries. Scott began his talk with his Story of Self—how he went from being a self-centered nightclub promoter to a volunteer photographer in Liberia where he saw for the first time the devastating effects of not having clean drinking water, to becoming the founder of charity: water. As he reflects on what happened when more and more people heard his story and began responding to the vision of charity: water, he says, “Our ‘why’ was simple: People should have clean water to drink. That’s it. Then other people got a hold of that ‘why’ and started doing extraordinary things.”

“As the CEO of a private company, I saw that creating a compelling vision and crafting an inspiring narrative are key to achieving results. You must never lose sight of the ultimate goal.”
Raymond Edmund Mabus, Jr. in “To Lead You Must Focus,” Harvard Business Review

From resolve to alignment

You may not be leading a global organization working for water rights or crafting marketing for a multinational technology company, but the power of your personal Why is just as important to both the achievement of your personal goals and in getting those around you to align with a vision. Still, expressing your natural passions and motivations may not come naturally at first. Here are a few tips, adapted from The Work of Leaders (Straw, Scullard, Kukkonen, and Davis):

  1. Be clear in your own mind why you’re passionate about a goal or vision. Take the time to reflect on your own emotional drive and it will be easier for you to convey your optimism.
  2. Trust your authentic self. You may feel your personal motivations are not of interest to others and should remain…personal. Trust that the more honest and open you are about your vision and goals, the more people will be able to connect with what you’re saying.
  3. Speak with passion. When you get right down to the core of your motivation, you find your deep commitment and excitement. Let that commitment and excitement come out. It will be infectious.

As you set goals, whether they are New Year’s resolutions or third-quarter targets, try turning your Whats and Hows into Whys.


John Capecci

Communication strategist, coach and consultant. Author of Living Proof: Telling Your Story to Make a Difference

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