I finished listening to Sinek’s book that I wrote about yesterday. The full title of it is, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. I ended up getting into it enough to download the eBook along the way someplace that I had WiFi. I’m now camped out just over the continental divide in the Arapaho National Forest north of Granby.

This area is one of the most hammered in the state from the bark beetle infestation that has ravaged forests all over the western U.S. for the last number of years. I drove up a forest road past a logging operation clearing out the dead timber. That’s another massive management action within our public estate that will have both positive and negative impacts on biodiversity working to address the already massive human-aided action of the pine beetle. I think the science is fairly solid that many of these forests would have been able to repulse much of the bark beetle infestation on their own but for the drought and warming temperatures from climate change.

Arapaho National Forest

Arapaho National Forest logging operation

Arapaho National Forest logging operation

Characterizing what this means now to the biodiversity in forest ecosystems is part of my team’s job through our concept for a National Biodiversity Assessment. This is change on a massive scale, with well over 90% die off of some species of evergreens in many areas. That is having tremendous ripple effects throughout the ecosystem as it changes all the dynamics in habitat balance with other species. So, should we go in and clear out the dead timber or not? Should we leave it in place and close off whole areas of the public estate to protect human health (falling dead trees are a serious safety concern)? What are the ripple effects of cutting out dead trees from the local impacts of the logging action and removal of biomass to more distant effects such as the carbon cost of converting the wood product to some other use? Our team is not in the position to answer all of these questions, but we are a part of the larger scientific community that is pursuing many of these questions and can do our part to expose what we know and the gaps in our knowledge for further consideration.

But back to my pondering about the book. Sinek makes the statement – people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it – 10 times in the book, coming back to it in nearly every section. It had me thinking throughout the day of driving yesterday about the fundamental salesmanship part of my job. Though there’s a part of me that shudders at the thought of being a salesman, that is essentially what I do. I’ve written elsewhere about government service and some of its dynamics, but the reality is that we are building a product or service, giving it away for free in terms of money (though there are cases where we get money for a service), and describing our revenue stream in terms of relevance as the currency.

The relevance is to the mission for which we receive our budget, and we have shareholders and consumers just like a publicly traded corporation. Our CEO is the President of the United States, and our “division” COO is the Secretary of Interior (since each Cabinet-level Agency operates mostly independently). Our board of directors is Congress. One challenge that I thought of yesterday when listening to Sinek’s stories of great CEOs and companies and thinking about how to apply all of that to my own situation is that I and my team are just one small piece of a massive bureaucratic administrative machine (ref. Sugata Mitra’s TED talk). Notionally, I am only 4 steps removed from the COO and 5 from the CEO in terms of my direct line of authority. However, there are so many other players involved in making decisions about what we do and how we go about it and even setting some of the tone for why we exist that making my rough analogy to levels of leadership in a business is somewhat tenuous.

When a new administration comes into power, they try to set their stamp on the whole Executive Branch and steer the entire organization in the direction of their “political mandate” – their “why.” Political appointments are made throughout the top of the full bureaucracy with further hiring decisions and appointments made to spread the effect. Career professionals, like myself, have our own reason for being in the jobs we hold. Sometimes those align well with where the new administration wants to go and other times they don’t. In any case, we are generally around longer (30 year or more career tracks are the norm, with government scientists passionate about their research often sticking around for 50 years or more). We manage the day-to-day operations of our organizations and the people who get the work done, and we have to take a longer view, working within the system of sometimes dramatically shifting top level priorities.

This means that those of us in leadership positions are in a constant sales job. During the course of a single administration, the top leadership in every government organization that represents the budget line item Programs will need to justify their budget to several new groups of politically appointed budget examiners from the Office of Management and Budget (the CEO’s direct control arm) and to new groups of Congressional staffers and before Congressional Committees. To do that effectively requires the rest of us in the organization to provide those top-level executives with the goods. We have to give them the data and the packaging on what we’re doing and why it’s important in the context of who they are selling to. Sometimes, we are able to package what we do based on why we think we exist in terms that resonate with what the CEO wants to get done or what the shareholders demand that we do. Other times, we get new direction that has us figuring out how to implement something else entirely.

Behind all of that, though, is a deeper “why” that I think drives the vast majority of us in government service. We’re here because something about the particular mission we landed in resonates with our hearts and minds. And it is a service we perform directly for the American people. In government, beyond the regularly shifting sands of the elected officials that theoretically represent the values of those who vote for them, are thousands of us who directly provide products and services to the electorate. At the end of the day, those constituents have to “buy” what we are selling. The American people are our customer base, and we report sales figures based on how much our products and services are used (quantitative measures) and how those products and services work to advance societal goals (qualitative measures). Those metrics and anecdotes are the “ammunition” we give our executives when they go and report to the CEO, to shareholders, and to all of those other parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine that influence the CEO and shareholders.

So, I have to think about sales a lot in my job. The currency we receive for the work we do may not always be monetary, but the tenets and lessons learned in this area from the private sector should apply in some way. What I’ve heard and am now reading (now that I have the “hard copy”) in Sinek’s book is definitely resonating as the primary direction and tone I need to set for our team. He makes a really good case for getting really clear on why we do whatever it is that drives us – our reason for being in whatever the particular business – and then always leading with that message in everything we say and do. There are a number of other aspects to the lesson that I’ll be pondering on as well and figuring out how to apply such as consistency and volume of the message.

Sinek also talks about the massive importance of the why person (which is usually one) teaming with the how people in an organization; something I’ve also thought quite a bit about and read about in other leadership writing. I seem to be the natural why person in our group because it’s part of what I’ve always done and who I am. I articulate vision and illuminate the path of the possible, and while I am subject to the same fears that plague others, my response is usually to be bold in unmasking them and aggressive in finding a way through them. I have learned in this last week that my team members share much of my vision and passion, and in many cases, they have an even larger vision through their own scientific interests and personal drivers. I get to be the front person for a vision that is bigger than my own. I do have some of my own ideas about how we should go about building the new product line we are envisioning because of my other personal “why” about dramatically advancing science with information technology, and I can certainly share those as ideas for consideration. However, I can best serve the organization by focusing on crystalizing why we’re doing this, selling it upward and outward in and beyond the organization, and working with my how people on making sure we put the systems and processes in place to be successful.

I need to think and write more about how I translate the tenets of Sinek’s book as well as the many business methods and practices I’ve been reading about into our many-layered bureaucratic administrative machine. While many argue that government is different than business and spend time and energy trying to come up with our own unique path, I really don’t see it that way. Human beings run both business and government, and so they are both subject to the same rules – I just need to find the language that will resonate within my particular culture.