Monday, December 17, 2012

President Obama starts with the "why"

I noticed that last night after the President's remarks at the Newtown vigil, we once again heard people on the left complaining that he hadn't talked specifically about gun control. For example, Bill Maher tweeted his frustration that President Obama didn't say the word "gun" at all.

There are lots of reasons to cite for why that kind of specificity would have been inappropriate when speaking at a vigil for the victim's families. But even more importantly, it demonstrates ignorance about what real leadership means.

Over a year ago, I first watched this TED Talk by Simon Sinek titled "How Great Leaders Inspire Action." If you've got a few minutes, I highly recommend it to you.

Sinek talks about something he found to be true of all great leaders...they start with the "why." He illustrates this by sharing how most conventional conversations go.

People who assume they already have all the answers start with the "what" and then move to the "how." But what Sinek noticed about effective leaders is that they start with the "why." That's because they know that to truly inspire people to action, you have to align what you believe with what they believe.

What strikes me about this is that it also aligns with what all effective community organizers know. And so it doesn't surprise me that this is how President Obama tends to approach most issues. He almost always starts with a goal we can all embrace in other words - the "why." And then once we've all bought into that - he suggests that we can have a conversation about the very pragmatic steps of accomplishing the "what" and "how."

This is yet another reason why ideologues will never "get" him. Almost by definition, an ideologue is someone who is primarily focused on the "what."

But President Obama - like all great leaders - knows that's not how transformational change happens.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
And so last night, what President Obama did was ask us to all come together on the most important "why" of all.
Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?

We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain, that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that, no matter how good our intentions, we’ll all stumble sometimes in some way.

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll experience hardships and even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.

There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace, that is true.

The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves and binds us to something larger, we know that’s what matters.

We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.

That’s what we can be sure of, and that’s what you, the people of Newtown, have reminded us. That’s how you’ve inspired us. You remind us what matters. And that’s what should drive us forward in everything we do for as long as God sees fit to keep us on this Earth.

“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison, God has called them all home.

For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory.


  1. I love Simon Sinek. I've listened to the audio version of "Start With Why" at least a half dozen times.

  2. Starting with "why" is also how you deal with those who are in extreme opposition to you especially because they have their own version of "why" as well.

    Besides, where was Bill Maher when gun violence was mostly an epidemic in poorer, nonwhite communities? Sure, many on the Left could have seen this coming from a long way away, but that doesn't mean everybody else did (especially the "gun nuts").

    I think the key problems ideologues have with Obama or any other leader is that they see themselves as the only audience. They are totally clueless to the fact that there are people whose lives doesn't evolve around politics and just simply have a different POV. Leaders have to face this issue every time they give a speech and in their governing, because the ideologues are not their only constituents.

    I thought Obama's speech was excellent and quite honestly, the nick picking about him not using the word "gun" is ridiculous.

    I've really stopped caring about the left-wing ideologues not getting Obama. Some of this is along generational lines. So many left ideologues get their inspiration from the "counter-culture" started by Baby Boomers in the '60s. As a Gen-X'er, I simply don't identify with most aspects of this movement. Obama, despite it being possible to make the case that he is a Baby Boomer, acts more like a Gen-Xer. This is because he was born towards the end of the Baby-Boom generation and only a few years before most experts say Generation X begins (after 1965). They need to get over the fact that even if he was more inspired by the "counter-culture," because he was only a child when it was going on, Obama is just not going to confirm to their version of a leader.

    However, I just think that many of these guys are unhappy because the only Presidents this generation can truly claim they produced are Clinton and Bush 43. I certainly don’t want to put down the entire Baby Boom generation since this is where my parents came from. I just get along better with Baby Boomers who know that the “Summer of Love” is over. They reminisce about the past, but clearly understand that the present and the future, are different.

  3. I always appreciate your depth of understanding and your great way of communicating it. Once again, you've helped me to understand something more deeply and I want you to know how much that helps me.




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