There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or influence. Those who lead inspire us.
Whether individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.
Those are the opening words of Simon Sinek’s book START WITH WHY. Who is he, you may ask? An author and motivational speaker to put in simple terms of what he does everyday. However, Simon is really no different than any of us; what is special about him is that he wakes up every day with a clear sense of WHY – to inspire people to do the things that inspire them.
That is Simon’s “Why,” but everything that we do in life, it needs to start with “Why” as well; we need to be inspired with the work that we do from the beginning and be fulfilled with the work that we accomplish in the end. For those that have seen his TEDTalks or have read his books START WITH WHY and Leaders Eat Last, the concept of “Why” has spread far and wide because it resonates with people such as myself on such a deep and inherently human level that they share it with others and inspired me to write this article.
Samuel Pierpont Langley was a highly regarded senior officer at the Smithsonian Institution, a mathematics professor who had also worked at Harvard. He was well connected and was friends with the likes of Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist who led the expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century and Alexander Graham Bell. In 1898 he set out to be the first man to pilot an airplane and was given a $50,000 grant from the War Department to fund his project. Pulling together the best minds of the day and using the finest materials, you would think this dream team of talent was going to be a success no?
The truth is, most of you probably never heard of Samuel P. Langley until now. He had a bold goal, but he didn’t have a clear sense of “Why.” His purpose of building the plane was simply the fact that he was going to build a plane, and when that is achieved, he would be rich and famous, the kind of fame Thomas Edison or Bell received when inventing something big. That was his only motivation – fame and fortune; he had no passion for flight.
Wilbur and Orville Wright on the other hand, the Wright brothers as we well know, pioneered aviation with the invention and building of the world’s first successful airplane. They however, had no funding, no grants, no high-level connections, and some of the team members didn’t even finish high school. None of that really mattered. The Wright brothers had a dream. They knew “Why” it was important to build this thing. They believed that if they succeed, it would change the world. Yes I know it sounds a little cheesy, but they had the inspiration of something bigger; they imagined the benefits to everyone else if they were successful, not just themselves. With this genuine belief, the brothers excited the human spirit of the team and their community; on December 17, 1903, a 59 second flight, at an altitude of 120 feet, the famous “first flight” photo was snapped. A short time later after news broke out of Wilbur and Orville’s success, Langley right-out quit; he didn’t even have the sense of mind to say “hey that’s amazing, now I’m going to improve on their technology.” He just quit.
Samuel Pierpont Langley may be a leader in the sense that he has a lot of influence and holds a position of power within the so-called team that he is overseeing, operating, managing, whatever you like to call it; however, he isn’t someone we consider that leads and inspires. Wilbur and Orville Wright on the other hand, despite seemingly working with a recipe of failure, preached what they believed and inspired their community to join them in their cause. They weren’t afraid of failures which they certainly had, they didn’t care so much what others thought of them, and they weren’t chasing fame and fortune. They genuinely had the utmost inspiration and belief that with flight, man may fly on a plane as easily as they have been taking the bus.
If you haven’t listened or watched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech before, I strongly encourage you to do so. Today, when you want to create a public event, a few clicks of buttons on Facebook will do the job. MLK didn’t have the luxury of Facebook on August 28, 1963 when he delivered his famous speech…not that he needed it anyways. On that day, Dr. King stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial at Washington, D.C., close to a quarter of a million people from across the United States came in time to hear the words that changed the nation of America. Heck… mind you, even stirring up that many people for a single event nowadays is not that easy, let alone spreading the information mostly by words of mouth.
Dr. King was not the only person who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. Nor was he the only one alive during that time who knew what had to be changed. He however, knew how to inspire people. He was able to inspire a country to change not just for himself, not just for his closest allies, not just for the good of a minority, but for the good of everyone. He is a true leader in my books.
Martin Luther King Jr., like the Wilbur brothers, had a clear sense of “Why.” His sense of purpose and vision gave the people who believed what he believed the confidence that when united, they will do something remarkable and big… to fuel a movement that would change a country, and soon heard around the world. MLK had a convincing ability to put his “Why” into words, and his words had the power to inspire.
When 250,000 people showed up at the Washington National Mall that day, how many showed up for Dr. King? ZERO. Why? Because as alluded to the top of this article and the beginning of START WITH WHY, Whether individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves. It was the people that saw this event as an opportunity to help America become a better version of itself. It was the people who wanted to live in a country that reflected their own values and beliefs. They happened to share what Martin Luther King Jr. believed.
The ability to inspire is not reserved for these two examples. With a little discipline, any of us can inspire others, both inside and outside an organization, or simply start off small, in your circle of friends. We can all learn to lead… to help advance an idea and a vision. To be a leader, you don’t have to be the only one who comes up with all the great ideas, that is not what the role of a leader is. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen, then surround yourself with a team of people that share the same values and beliefs as you, and they will be the ones who are best qualified to find ways to build and succeed their vision.