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Rediscovering the “WHY” behind Corban University


The cherry trees are in bloom along the driveway that winds up the campus hill. Just past historic Shimmel Hall, a clock tower stands like a beacon, guiding groups of students to the Psalm Performing Arts Center for chapel. They amble down the hill from science labs, classrooms, and dorms, carefree despite the backpacks draped over their shoulders filled with microbiology textbooks, study Bibles, and laptops.

When prospective students walk onto Corban University’s campus, this is what they first see: the natural beauty of its location, the historic beauty of its buildings, the up-to-date facilities, and the challenging academic programs. In a sense, these elements comprise Corban’s “product”—these are the elements students’ tuition dollars are paying for. But the product itself isn’t why students come.

According to author and marketing consultant Simon Sinek, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” In 2009, Sinek delivered a TED talk titled “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” He began by explaining that influential leaders, marketers, and entrepreneurs have found success because they’ve made one small change in how they process and communicate information.

Most people begin with “what.”

To demonstrate this concept, he drew three concentric circles and labeled the outermost circle “WHAT,” the next circle “HOW,” and the innermost circle “WHY.” He explained that most people process information from outside in. All day long, we process what we are doing. Answering the question “What did you eat for breakfast?” wouldn’t take more than a second’s thought: “I had a piece of toast with almond butter.” Answering the question “How?” would take a bit more thought, as you described the process of making toast. But answering “Why?” (as many parents of small children know) is more elusive, and leads to the realm of values, beliefs, and worldviews. Why did you eat almond butter toast? Is it because you believe the protein will strengthen your body and boost your metabolism? Why do you care about a strong body and high metabolism? Is it because you value health? Meeting society’s standards of attractiveness? Staying active outdoors?

If “what” deals with the visible and factual, “why” deals with the abstract and value-based. And according to Sinek, the “why,” not the “what,” drives human behavior.

Successful leaders begin with “why.”

Although “what” is easier to articulate than “why” (it’s easy to list “what” on an admissions brochure: 15:1 faculty-student ratio! Available scholarships! Top-tier athletics!), successful companies, leaders, and campaigns, Sinek says, begin not with “what” but with “why.”

He gives the example of a typical advertisement for an Apple product. Apple doesn’t start by telling you what product they have; they start by telling you why they exist. “We believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed . . . and user-friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?” Sinek explains that almost every successful leader follows this pattern: Why, how, what. Think about how many commercials you see that don’t show the product—the “what”—until the very end. First, you’re presented with a value a company aligns itself with: a unified family, the beauty of nature, romance. Not until the end do you discover the “what”: Febreze air freshener, the Toyota Prius, Chanel perfume.

It sounds so simple. So why isn’t everyone doing it?

There are a couple of reasons.

It’s incredibly easy to forget why you’re doing something.

The “what” is visible; the “why” is invisible. Too easily, we become distracted by what is visible: new academic programs, new athletic facilities, additional classroom space, endowed scholarships. (To clarify, I’m not saying that the “what” is unimportant, or that we shouldn’t update our facilities. We have a winning track team and no track. That’s a problem. A track and field is a very necessary “what.”) But the “what” should always serve the “why.” We must continuously remind ourselves why we exist. Why does Corban University exist? What do we believe, and what do we value?

“Why” is more difficult to communicate than “what.”

The second reason some leaders struggle to put Sinek’s principle into practice is that, while they may know why they exist, they struggle to communicate it to others. Once again, communicating “what” is easy: an 82-year-old Christian university, on 142 acres, with over 50 academic majors and programs. It’s quantifiable. Communicating “why” is more difficult. And while a mission statement (“To educate Christians who will make a difference in the world for Jesus Christ”) can help articulate a company or institution’s “why” it does so only partially. It’s still abstract, hard to visualize or grasp.

So, how do you ensure not only that you are communicating your “why” clearly, but that you yourself don’t forget why you’re doing what you’re doing?

How to rediscover and communicate your “why”

Perhaps you’ve heard new parents talk about their newborn, complaining about sleepless nights, tantrums, and endless diaper changes. “And then,” they’ll say, “she laughed for the first time, and we remembered why we were doing this.” A similar phenomenon can help you remember the “why” behind what you’re doing—the individual story.

If you were to follow those students heading down the hill toward the Psalm Center, walk through the doors behind them, and take a seat during a chapel service, you would begin to hear students’ stories. They’d tell stories about doubts they’d resolved, challenges they’d overcome, traumatic events they’d healed from, mistakes they’d repented, all the while praising the glory and power of God.

“This,” you’d say to yourself, “is why we’re doing this. This is what we value: godliness of character, true repentance,  and obedience to Christ, glory and praise being given back to God, lives being changed. Stories are what transform an elusive, abstract “why” into something tangible and real.

While Chanel, Toyota, and Febreze have to manufacture stories to express their “why”—that family enjoying a summer barbecue is actually comprised of actors who’ve memorized scripts—institutions like Corban see real people’s stories unfold every day. A young woman who came to Corban as a timid freshman, uncertain about her calling, leaves for Madagascar to work for Mercy Ships. A young man who’d spent years in the military and came to Corban not sure how he’d fit back into academic society is now a business consultant, who shares godly business principles with his clients.

These are the stories you can share to communicate your “why,” to show your prospective clients, students, and investors what you believe and what you value and to make your mission statement real to them. “We’re shaping these young people into young men and women who are confident in Christ, who can engage the culture from a biblical perspective, and who are guided by truth, love, humility, and integrity,” you can say. This is our why. The track field, science labs, qualified faculty, and Pacific Northwest beauty just help us accomplish it.

Author: Simon Sinek
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