Headmaster’s Assembly – 11 January 2017

What, How, Why

This past holiday I came across the work of a leadership expert called Simon Sinek whose work I found fascinating. His comments and thoughts can be found on various websites and he has given a number of interviews and Ted talks, but one of his talks inspired me which I shared with the teaching staff yesterday and share with you today. This was part of my personal reflection process this holiday which I spoke about last term when I encouraged you to spend some time in quiet contemplation, trying to make sense of who you were and what you wanted to be. I did this while on holiday from a personal perspective and then came back and this man inspired me to look at the organisation of which I am a part and reflect on what we do.

Sinek speaks of organisations and what makes them successful and he shares a three-circle model – a small circle inside a medium circle inside a larger circle. The larger circle represents the “What”, the medium circle the “How” and the smaller and innermost circle the “Why”. Most organisations communicate and think from the outside in – they know what they are, they largely know how they do what they do but are not too sure and cannot clearly articulate why they do what they do. He uses the example of Apple – and bear in mind that this was presented seven years ago – and talks of their success and what made them different from other computer companies because that is exactly what they are. If Apple was an ordinary company, they would communicate from the outside in – we are a computer company that makes great computers (the what).They are easy to use (the how). Do you want to buy one? But Apple have always communicated differently. The have started with the innermost circle – the “why”. They communicate like this. We believe in thinking differently and challenging the status quo (why). We make our products simple, easy to use and beautiful (how). We happen to make computers – want to buy one? Can you see the difference?

Successful organisations know why they do what they do. They have a purpose, a belief, a set of values that drives everything they do. Sinek says that people don’t buy “what” you do, they buy “why” you do it.

Let us take this to Boys High. We are a school (the “what”). We have great teachers and wonderful material to work with in our boys (the “how”). And we think we do this well (perhaps the “why”). But many schools have this – they know who they are and have great staff and boys. So what makes us different?

What if we turned this around and started from the inside – from our purpose. We believe in people and their individual worth, we believe in developing critical thinking skills and we believe in doing things for the right reasons, based on good personal and educational values (why). We employ people that will carry these beliefs forward and live them out in their work and we encourage boys who to accept the challenges that come with having high expectations (how). And, by the way, we think we are a great school – want to come here or work here?

We need to start with our beliefs and our purpose – part of which is defined in our core values and the catchphrase of “tis here we learn to live”. That is our “why”. We need to tell people why we do what we do – we are not just any school.

You can take this personally as well by turning yourself around. Instead of starting with what you are by saying I am a 15 year old boy from Pretoria, I go to Boys High and I believe in doing my best, you start off with what is important to you. Perhaps something like this:

“I believe in doing my best no matter what I do. I will always consider the needs of others and will try to help them. I will treat those around me with respect, no matter who they may be. My word will be my bond, I will do the right thing as much as I can and I will be loyal to my friends, my family and my school” Oh – and by the way I am a teenage boy from Pretoria and I go to a wonderful school.

Think about your purpose and what you believe in and use that to determine who you are – not the other way round.

“He who has a “why” to live for can bear almost any “how”.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche


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