The (R)evolution of "What and Why" Into "Who"

10/03/2014 12:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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"The world has entered an era of the most profound and challenging change in human history." - Steven Covey

The ushering in of a new era always requires a redefinition of who we are, where we are, and where we need to be. The evolution from "what" to "why" to "who" represents just such a challenge and is present in everything from the Millennial movement, to customer-based content, to "selfie" inspired social media. To grasp "who's" value let's trace some history.

Four Eras of Evolution
As we transitioned from the Agrarian Era to the Industrial Revolution we focused on the mass production of products, the widgets or "what's by when's." Our competitive strategies were based on streamlining productivity, boosting output and reducing time to market.

As the Industrial Revolution gave way to the Information Era, the "why's and how's" took center stage. The "how's" were about strategic planning, competitive positioning and "working smarter not harder." The "why's" were focused on the values of "work life balance," "customer experience" and even "stewardship."

As the Information Era evolved into the Transformation Era, the importance of "why" and its message of deeper value was artfully leveraged into people development. ("Finding your Why" continues to be a popular and powerful leadership inquiry hosted by experts such as a colleague, Ridgley Goldsborough.) But as we move into the heart of transformation, there is another shift ahead which I call the "(R)evolution of Who." To understand this new-comer let's explore its three evolutions and revolutions:

The (R)evolution of Who Trio
"What's" are the contents of what we have, (our possessions, assets and belongings.)
"Why's" are the values behind what we do, (making a difference, contributing, giving.)
"Who" is our generative state of being, (the inner wellspring from which all our values arise.)

The transformation of self arising within this trio is cumulative not exclusive. In other words, Who we are is the "first cause" or interconnected source point of the three. (This is because we create out of Who we are, not out of Why we are, or What we are.) From first cause, our Why resolves into value, thus providing us meaning, direction and purpose. Finally, our What's crystallize into tangible steps and results. To bring this (R)evolution of Who to life, allow me to recount a "summit inspired" experience for you.

To The Summit of Our Greatness
. . . At twelve thousand feet our team had just traversed a huge fissure in the ice. Climbing to the center of the open slope above it all seemed well until the crampon on my left boot popped loose. I grabbed for my ice axe to brake, but I landed hard and it bounced from my hands. Terror raged through my body as I careened out of control!

Suddenly I smashed into something hard. Blinded by snow I lay helpless. Then it hit me; my fellow climbers just saved my life by forming a human net, catching me just a few meters before falling to my death.

"We've got ya! We're not gonna let you fall!"
"Thanks everybody, I can take it from here."
"Lay still Val Jon, you're pushing us back into the crevasse!"
"No, really, I'm okay now. I'll be fine now."
"Stop wiggling around or you're going to kill us all!"

That got in. I finally let go and as they helped me to my feet, I realized my "What" of rugged independence made it nearly impossible for people to support me. Tears filled my eyes as I recounted my past. I would always say, "No problem, I can do it myself." I didn't want to burden anyone or put them out. Looking into these climber's faces I saw images of family members, friends and past relationships I had alienated with my closed attitude.

In that moment I became aware of my "Why." The value of opening to others was so much greater than the What called "I can do it myself." As I embraced my Why, for the first time in my life I realized that accepting help was not an act of weakness, it was an act of humility.

Where I accessed my Who however was at the summit. Atop all great mountains is a register book and as I flipped through Shasta's I came upon a passage written years before my climb. I'll never forget it:

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Father, I dedicate this climb to you. I am standing at the top of Mount Shasta today because of the love and support you gave me as I was growing up. It was your commitment to me that gave me the strength to do this climb. And although you lost your legs in the Korean War and have never been able to stand beside me, Dad, I want you to know that today I stand on the top of this mountain for both of us. I love you with all my heart, your son John.

Peering out over the curve of the Earth the power of this young man's Who evoked my own Who. It arose within me like a summit through the clouds of mediocrity.

I vowed from that moment on that I would remain true to Who I am, fully embrace my Why's and commit to only those What's that support living true to my greater self and assist others with the same.

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If my story touched who You are, then the (R)evolution of Who is alive and well. Together let's embrace Who we are fully, infuse it into our Why's and make it real in our What's.

If not us . . . then Who?

To learn more about the author's leadership development programs visit the Keystone Website by clicking here.

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