Why do you do what you do?

Answering this question in an articulate way creates a hunger to know the answers to other strategic questions.

Editor's note: This is the second in a series about developing strategy. The first post was about making choices; the third post is about answering where and how, and the final post is about getting organized.

When busy people agree to give a day to attend a meeting, I ask, "Why did you say yes?" The answers usually include interest in the topic or the other invitees, trust in the inviter or hope for receiving a grant. I ask to understand the participant’s expectations for the conversation.

Business strategist Roger Martin suggests that answering the question “Why?” is the first step in the process of developing a strategy. The answer addresses the reason that the strategy matters to you, the community, the next generation and God. Why is the strategy worth investing time and energy to accomplish?

When Michael Ignatieff moved from teaching and writing about politics at Harvard to running for parliament in Canada, the people of his district and the press demanded to know why. Why had he returned? Why was he running? In his autobiography recounting the lessons from five years in office, Ignatieff expresses surprise at the importance of the question.

Before running for office Ignatieff believed his standing as a writer and professor, his father’s faithful service to the nation and his love of Canada were enough to explain why he was running. From the moment he declared for office, his opponents cast doubt on his motives by accusing him of abandoning Canada for the United States and only returning to run for office to show the poor Canadians how government should be done. They used his life story against him.

Ignatieff won his first election and within a year was the head of his party and leader of the Official Opposition, which is the officially recognized “government in waiting.” This quick ascent meant that Ignatieff ran in three elections in five years. As he met more and more people on the campaign trail, he realized that he had run for office to create the conditions for a better life for working Canadians. He believed that the Liberal Party’s moderate stance was best suited to create such conditions.

After five years in office, Ignatieff and the Liberal Party suffered a stunning defeat that pushed him out of Parliament and the Liberals out of the Official Opposition. Ignatieff’s analysis is that the Conservatives effectively took away his standing by constantly attacking his reason for serving. Ignatieff acknowledges that he helped the Conservatives by initially being inarticulate about his “why.”

Ministers serving congregations and Christian institutions understand what it means to lose standing. Their status has decreased over the last century. Once upon a time, parents would be honored for having a child become a pastor. Today, the parents and their friends worry that the ministry is such a difficult life. Pastors who work for a denomination are regarded as foolish by fellow pastors.

In the face of a loss of standing, Ignatieff’s warning that politicians need to be clear about “why” seems critical for clergy. I work with Christian institutions and their leaders because such institutions are critical to enabling, encouraging and organizing the activities in which Christian should participate. The activities add up to making a difference in the lives of those in great need. Participating in the activities is a key to forming us as Christians.

Answering “Why?” in a compelling way creates a hunger to know the answers to Martin's other strategic questions: Where? How? What? The next time you are asked what you do at a social event, consider answering with why you do what you do. The practice might be helpful; you can test if the conversation is richer and deeper.