You might be familiar with the famous Ted Talk “Start with Why”. It argues great leaders put the purpose or mission of their work first, and this ultimately motivates people.

In my experience “why” doesn’t drive motivation and impact. Instead ‘who’ does.

People care about who they’re working with before all else. They want colleagues they respect and enjoy. They want emotional safety, to feel like they’re supporting a forward progress with peers they love. The ‘what’ or ‘why’ comes after.

In some of my favorite professional experiences, the ‘why’ hasn’t been particularly front and center. If I described the annoyances of fixing bugs on ancient gyro-navigator software at a defense contractor, carrying floppies up and down to the lab, debugging by typing hex addresses on an old school 40 x 6 ASCII character display, you’d never want that job. If you thought deeper and said ‘oh that’s a boring defense contractor’ with its own bureaucratic unexcitement, you’d be even less thrilled. 

Yet the team enjoyed the collaboration so much, we found our way to enjoying (and innovating!) on the crufty C code into new products and directions. We wanted to work together, and that created its own ‘what’ and ‘why’.

Being on a healthy team is one of the great, rare, joys of life - and one that creates flow and purpose in and of itself.

Who leads to to a deeper ‘why’

You can’t fake the ‘who’, even with the most noble ‘why’. The most noble ‘why’ espoused by sociopaths only leads to cults and fascists. Selfless leaders that start with ‘who’ first find the right ‘why’.

If you surround yourself with people you truly love, deeper purpose falls out. In the cases where work seemed like drudgery, something greater became elevated out of the muck. The collaboration the team experiences building, becomes a deeper collaboration with customers and ultimately society. Deeper purpose falls out from the who.

The gyronavigator work becomes about the sailor we want to bring home; about the calibration technician we save time and headaches. The ‘drudgery’ work becomes meaningful because of who it connects us with, who it supports. As we deepen our collaboration, we find purpose in our positive impact to the other ‘whos’ out there beyond just the team. The team’s spirit and safety becomes infectious beyond just the team to customers, other teams, and perhaps even society.

You can’t fake ‘who’

Without putting ‘who’ first, you can’t create trust. You’ll only have politics and dysfunction. Work won’t feel fulfilling regardless of the tech or mission. Retention will suffer. People will focus on the transactional nature of the work - compensation for deliverables - regardless of the why.

Great teams will be rare in your career. Don’t sacrifice loving who you’re working with for seemingly sexy tech, charismatic leaders, or abstract missions disconnected from real relationships. Instead focus on purpose derived from the great human joy of building together. All other good things flow out from this.

Special Thanks to Simon Eskildsen and Chen Karako-Argaman for reviewing this post and giving substantive edits and feedback!

Doug Turnbull

More from Doug
Twitter | LinkedIn | Mastodon
Doug's articles at OpenSource Connections | Shopify Eng Blog