Why did You Come to Work Today?

  • Published
  • By Col. Scott Reed
  • Maintenance Group Commander
I read a great book recently, "Start with WHY." The author, Simon Sinek, made a compelling argument that successful organizations share one common trait - they understand at the most fundamental level why they exist. The people in these organizations feel the values of the institution say something about who they are, and who they want to be. In other words, they have connected their beliefs and values with their reason for getting out of bed and going to work. They share a common vision and identify themselves as being part of something bigger. Their lives are enriched because they belong. This is who we are as Stingers and the concept of starting with WHY provides some useful insight.

One of the great examples of this kind of success is Apple. Whether you're a PC or a Mac user, you know the passion of the Apple crowd. Apple employees love their company and their customers will pay a premium price to own a Mac because they believe it says something about them. Owning a Mac implies they are educated, independent and cool.

This company started out at a time when computers were very expensive, not to mention just plain huge. Apple's idea was to put a small, affordable computer in every home; putting the individual on par with the big companies. As a result, their employees and customers are fiercely loyal.

Another great example was the UCLA Bruins basketball team under Coach John Wooden. His message was that hard work and attention to detail will lead you to your personal best. He didn't coach basketball just to win - winning was a byproduct of his real pursuit of developing character. His vision was that a group of individuals could reach their collective potential, as a team, when all players contributed to the best of their abilities and sacrificed to put the team first. His greatest memory was not one of his many national championships, but of a team that was short on talent but used every bit of what they had to finish the season ahead of all expectations. They were the closest of any team he ever coached to achieving their potential. Years later, Coach Wooden's players still identify the best part of themselves as being a product of those teams.

Both Steve Jobs and Coach Wooden knew WHY they were going to work.

Leadership must start with WHY because we need to clearly articulate the vision. When Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, over 200,000 people came to hear him. Most didn't come for him, they came for themselves. They were looking for someone to put into words what was already in their hearts. When he said "I have a dream" he was giving the mission statement for the WHY of civil rights. That was leadership.

Our organizations all have vision, mission and goal statements. What do they say? Do they speak to your beliefs? Do they inspire you to be a part of something bigger than yourself? They should. I believe there are things worth fighting for. I believe in freedom and democracy. My vision statement says: "Serve our country with honor and integrity as part of a truly great organization: rooted in teamwork, tied together by our common core values, and defined by our ability to inspire our members to achieve their potential individually and collectively."

My personal epiphany occurred the last day of survival training in a mock POW camp. The instructors do a good job of making the experience feel realistic. You're sleep deprived and pretty miserable when suddenly all the guards come out of character and return to being American Airmen. They raised our flag and played the national anthem. It sounds corny now, but there were literally tears in my eyes. To this day, every time I hear my national anthem I honestly feel that same pride in my country. And yeah, sometimes I get a little misty when I hear it and think about the friends I've lost or the country my children will inherit. But that's WHY I wear a uniform and come to work.

If you believe in the same values as I do, then it's not complicated to figure out HOW to do our jobs. This is our code of conduct. We are committed to getting the job done right the first time, and to doing what needs to be done the best way we know how. We work as a team, where service comes before self and we treat our wingmen with respect and dignity. We celebrate our successes, and recognize failure is only a reminder of what needs to be fixed. We take responsibility for our actions and hold ourselves and our wingmen accountable.

HOW we do our jobs naturally follows WHY we do our jobs.
When we take shortcuts or put in minimal effort, we are out of synch with who we want to be. It diminishes us. When we take the extra time and effort to do a job right, we might go home exhausted but somehow we are recharged to come back the next day. That behavior is consistent with our beliefs and over time makes us better.

The last piece is WHAT we actually do. Unfortunately, this is where most organizations and people start. They say "I make widgets. Mine are the best because of all the things I do. Don't you agree?" This type of thinking is backwards, and it is where companies
and people can get lost. Maybe, their charismatic leader who had the vision of WHY is gone. Or maybe, the company is so successful they start to focus on WHAT they're doing that seems to be working so well, such as low prices, sales gimmicks and new products. Walmart is a great example. They started out believing that if you take care of your employees and customers, then they'll take care of you. Low prices were a part of their appeal, but once Sam Walton was gone it became their only focus. Now they struggle with smaller and smaller profit margins driven by customers who no longer have any loyalty. Walmart is just one more alternative in a search for the lowest price. Look at their very public mistakes with cheap labor in China. Clearly, they've lost their way.

Individuals can get lost too. You may know someone who is so enamored with his or her position they have forgotten they only have that position to serve others. Look at our country's recent scandals involving senior leaders who have abused the privileges of their positions. They were focused on WHAT they did as a job title, not WHY. No matter the reason, when we start with WHAT we do instead of WHY, we'll end up going to work just to collect a paycheck, pay for school, feed our ego, and so on. This is definitely not
our vision.

If you are one of those who only come to work to collect a paycheck, that's okay - it's your choice. I honestly joined the Air Force just to pay for college. Somewhere along the way I realized how lucky I was to be an Airman. You can go through the motions in the Guard and stretch it to your enlistment or maybe even retirement, but you deserve more. Figure out what you believe in, what you value most and what you'd fight to protect. Find an organization that reflects your values and be a part of something bigger than yourself. Your life will be enriched.

I am convinced that if you think about it, you're already there. You are a Stinger - part of an unbroken line of outstanding Airmen who set you up for success. Your blood, sweat and tears can leave this organization and this country better than you found it. Ultimately, isn't that really WHY you came to work today?

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