Wisdom from our Leaders: The Importance of WHY

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Sonya Barseness

I remember when I first learned about the Pioneer Network and culture change. I had been in the field of aging and long-term care for several years and I was disappointed. I felt that we could do better for elders. Actually, we had to do better. I stumbled across the values of the Pioneer Network, and I gasped. These are my people!

As we celebrate 21 years of the Pioneer Network, and decades of the culture change movement, we still know we can, and need to, do better for people growing older in long-term care communities.

I recently was honored to be a part of a meeting organized by Pioneer Network at their recent conference to brainstorm how to engage executive leaders in changing the culture of aging and care. At the table were several leaders in long-term care and I was happy to be a fly on the wall.

As I have reflected on the rich discussion during the meeting, I am reminded of one my favorite books by Peter Block, The Answer to How is Yes. In it, Mr. Block says,

“If we could agree that for six months we would not ask ‘How?’, something in our lives, our institutions, and our culture might shift for the better. It would force us to engage in conversations about why we do what we do, as individuals and institutions. It would create the space for longer discussions about purpose, about what is worth doing. It would refocus our attention on deciding what is the right question, rather than what is the right answer.”

One thing that struck me from listening to the leaders around the table was that each leader could articulate an a-ha moment in which they decided to commit to culture change and develop a person-centered culture. Each one knew WHY they do what they do.

Even when the going got tough, when the HOW seemed daunting, or even impossible, what I heard was the importance of WHY. WHY we “do” culture change. WHY individual leaders facilitated a transformed culture of caring that celebrates and enables the WHY for the people who live and work in their communities.

As the meeting participants reflected on the gifts, opportunities, and challenges of culture change, the conversation evolved to how they could encourage others to join the movement and transform their cultures of caring so that elders are supported to live well, with meaning. As one participant said, “People will always have reasons for why they can’t do this. How do we help them see that they can?”

One thing that came up was the need for leaders engaged in culture change to share their a-ha stories. So that those struggling with the journey, considering taking the journey, and even those not yet on the journey know the WHY as well as the HOW.

Hearing the a-ha stories of leaders is powerful because it acknowledges that this is the starting place – believing that this culture change is the right thing to do, that it matters, and is important. That this is really first and foremost what we need. And that we need to believe it deeply.

When we hear others’ a-ha’s, their WHY’s for them doing what they do, it inspires us. Perhaps it is hearing the courage of others that speaks to us, that we can do it too. We see the possibilities. But it starts with the a-ha, the WHY.

Perhaps it is the simplicity of hearing that others do not have “the answer”, or know exactly how, but they started with WHY. This is somehow comforting, that maybe none of us really know what we are doing, but we are doing it anyway.

We, as a movement, have spent a good bit of energy on the business case for culture change as our driving argument. The business case is important, and certainly it has influenced people to change. We have also devoted a lot of energy to HOW we do culture change. This is also necessary.

But perhaps we need to consider another strategy in “getting people to change”. Perhaps we need to consider that, rather than changing other people’s minds, we might be more effective at sharing our own stories. It is easy to think that change is all about other people. But it is never really “those people” that need to change to create a person-centered culture. Each one of us needs to commit to change. And I heard this from these leaders. Each of them personally committed to changing the culture, starting with themselves.

In the work of change, Peter Block suggests that we ask this question of each of us: “What are you willing to commit to?’

This is a different question than “Are you in?” It asks each individual what she or he is willing to commit to the cause. It is not asking an organization what they are willing to commit. Rather, what is the individual willing to commit, personally? Each person can and does make a difference.

This question forces each change agent to clearly identify what she or he is willing to do. It comes after the recognition that something is worth doing, that it is important, and it matters. Because if it matters, then it is reasonable that a person is willing to do something to commit to change.

This question does not focus on HOW. What a relief! If I commit to this, I do not need to have all the answers all the time! Just like the leaders in this meeting, and many others who have been engaged in culture change. They just moved forward with it. They spoke their truth. They listened. They tried and failed and tried again. And at some point, things changed. They knew their WHY and this was their guide.

Maybe each of us can commit to focusing on the WHY of culture change. Is this important? Does it matter?

If yes, maybe each of us can commit to sharing our story of WHY. If we have a million stories of why, why this matters, why this is important, why we can do it, perhaps we will find less and less reasons why we cannot.

One comment on “Wisdom from our Leaders: The Importance of WHY

  1. Jeff Jerebker on

    Well written Sonya. Reminds me of the great music pioneer Miles Davis quote “I’ll play it first and tell you what I played later.”

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