Leadership’s Magic Word

By Steve McKee

I recently shared the stage at an industry conference with a well-regarded professor of neuroscience. I was a bit intimidated; while I am an accomplished marketer, I don’t have a list of degrees as long as my arm. That said, I found a couple of things he said befuddling.

The first: “You know how people say you make decisions with your heart and justify with your mind? It’s not true.”

He was referring to the physiological fact that our hearts don’t do a lot of thinking; their job is to keep the blood flowing to our brains where various neurons wrestle over whether to make rational decisions or go with our guts (not our real guts — I get it).  But he was being far too literal and, honestly, talking down to his audience. My knowledge of biology may be limited by what I learned in 10th grade, but as a branding expert, I do know the heart/mind dichotomy reflects a certain reality.

Because … he’s wrong?

It was his next claim, however, that truly puzzled me. In a heartbeat he went from being too literal to wildly mystical, an esteemed scientist invoking the power of incantation.

“Because,” he said, “is a magic word.”


As evidence for his claim, he cited a notable study from a few decades ago in which people were allowed to cut in line at a copy center at a higher rate when they used the word “because.” In a controlled experiment, those who said, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” were allowed to cut in line 60% of the time. When they added to their request “because I’m in a rush,” they were allowed to jump the queue 94% of the time.

Was it because “because” is one of leadership’s magic words? Nope. For decades, various people have been claiming that terms like “free,” “value,” “guaranteed,” “new” or “because” will automatically trigger positive responses. But people aren’t Pavlov’s dogs, and in our sophisticated consumer culture, we’ve all been burned enough to no longer be fooled. Perhaps that worked in the earliest days of advertising a century ago, but no more.

Leadership’s magic word is …

What, then, explains the difference in responses at the copy center? It wasn’t about the specific word that was used; it was about people’s deep-seated desire to know why.

This was brought home to me in a fresh way shortly after I returned home from the conference. Backed up in traffic due to a frustrating lane reduction, I was irritated, especially since it was the middle of the day and no workers were in sight. When I finally passed the orange barrels, however, I spotted a sign that, with two words, explained it: “Concrete curing.” Ah. Now I knew why the lane was closed, and knowing why made the delay a bit less annoying.

It’s human nature to want to know the why behind the what of the circumstances we face, whether insignificant or consequential. It’s the reason that when something inexplicably horrible happens, part of what torments us is not knowing why.

Why “why” is magical

In the business world, an entire industry has sprung up over the past decade or so around “knowing your why,” focused on helping people understand the big, existential reasons for doing what they do. But any of us can make daily life a bit better for those we lead simply by remembering how important it is to convey the reasons behind our decisions, big or small.

Helping people understand why you’re cutting that product line, why the organization is going remote (or not) or why the company won’t take a position on a controversial political issue may not satisfy everyone, but a logical explanation goes a long way in rationalizing even the most potentially unpopular opinion.

Beyond that, if you want to improve as a leader, learn to ask “why” of yourself more often.

Why did that aside I overheard in the meeting bother me?

Why do I feel the need to include all these people on this email chain?

Why am I putting up with antisocial behavior?

Why am I working at such an unhealthy pace?

Why on Earth do I continue to be on Twitter?

The answers — and any actions you take — may make you believe that why is leadership’s magic word.

A productive why is a good why

I think one reason we don’t always ask why of ourselves is we’re afraid of the answers. But it also simply might be because we’re not in the habit of doing so. If there is a magic word in leadership, it’s why — not as incantation, but self-examination.

This isn’t rocket science — or neuroscience — but let it be a good reminder. With apologies to the professor, if something is giving you heartburn, ask why.

Originally published on SmartBrief on Leadership

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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