The Power of Why – A King’s Fable and Lesson in Leadership


What does a king do when there’s no heir to the throne? Here’s a parable everyone can relate to when it comes to developing personal connections, strengthening relationships and becoming a transformational leader; and king.

Years ago, there lived a wise and noble king. The king lived a happy life with his beautiful wife. Then, only a few years after their marriage, his wife got very sick. Sadly, she died soon after. Unfortunately, this tragedy occurred before having children, leaving the king to rule the kingdom alone, without his bride beside him.

While devastated by the loss of his wife, the king stayed true to his commitment to rule with honor and take care of the people in his kingdom.

The love for his wife was so strong, the king couldn’t bear the thought of ever getting married again.

As the years passed, having no children of his own, the king knew the time would come where he would have to find the right man who, upon his death, would take his place as king.

Since there was no bloodline and no son who could rightfully take the king’s place, he called upon the people of the kingdom to help him find a suitable heir to the throne.

The king knew there would have to be a test of some sort that would help identify the most promising candidate.

One day, while the king was taking a stroll through the countryside, he came upon a massive sinkhole. It was so large that you could fit at least two soccer fields inside of it.

“I’ve got it!” exclaimed the King. “I know the test that would help me identify the next king.” And with that, he quickly returned to the castle to share his idea with his advisors.

The very next day, the king issued a decree throughout the kingdom. “Come one, come all. In three weeks’ time, those who feel worthy enough to take my place will meet in the town square to demonstrate why you are the one who should be heir to the kingdom.”

The day finally arrived. It seemed as if thousands of people traveled for miles to reach the town square; from every corner of the kingdom, with the dream of being chosen as the heir to the throne.

The king took these promising candidates out to the countryside to show them what he had found.

“Here is the question that, if answered correctly, will earn you the rightful place as our next king.”

Pointing to the massive hole, he simply asked, “What should I do?”

After several days and hundreds of responses later, no one had yet to come up with the right answer. Repeatedly, the king would hear the same responses. “Fill it with rocks and dirt.” “Fill it with water.” “Build a bridge across the sinkhole.” “Build a wall around it.” “Put warning signs around the sinkhole.” “Make it a graveyard.” “Leave it be.” “Camouflage the sinkhole to protect us from our enemies.” While some of these may be interesting ideas, none of them were the correct answer.

The king was getting discouraged, wondering if anyone was capable of thinking and acting like a successful king. As the number of candidates dwindled to a remaining few, it was time for one young man to answer the king’s question; a poor farm boy from the countryside who was ridiculed by those older and wiser than he for even considering the possibility of becoming king.

“So,” the king began with a disheartened and skeptical tone. “What should I do?”

The young man hesitated for a moment and then responded with, “Why do anything?”

Suddenly, the king’s disposition changed. He looked at the young man and asked with hope, “Why? When everyone else advised me what I could do with the sinkhole, why are you the only one not to advise me at all, nor tell me what I should do? Why do you come to me with only a question?”

The young man respectfully answered. “Because I cannot answer your question, my king. I don’t know your why. Until I understand not just what you want to do but why you want to do anything about this sinkhole and your intentions behind it, only then can I advise you to create your desired outcome, even if the proper course of action is to do nothing.”

How insightful! Instead of telling the king what he would do, this young man simply asked the king one question. A question so simple, yet so powerful and often overlooked. “Why?” After all, how can you align and collaborate effectively with others if you don’t understand their motivations, intention and their why behind their beliefs, efforts, actions, opinions, decisions, behavior, goals or values?

“Congratulations,” exclaimed the king. “You are the next heir to the throne of our kingdom.”

The town was shocked. The elders of the town questioned the king. “Why this boy?”

To which the king replied, “I never wanted to fix anything. That was not my intention. Everyone came to me with a solution to fixing what they assumed was a problem that needed fixing. They never took the time to uncover and understand my why or my desired intentions and point of view.

This young man was the only one who was insightful enough to seek out my intention and uncover my why.”

“The key to being a great leader is understanding what your people want and expect from you and why they want it. When leading your team to a shared goal and vision, they need to understand not only what they need to do but why they are doing it so they can see how they personally benefit. To set and manage people’s expectations and create alignment in thinking and action requires understanding people’s why, who they are and their intentions.”

What’s Your Why?

Fast forward several centuries to today. These leadership principles apply in every area of our lives. And when leading an organization or a team, when you can discover and articulate your collective why, only then can you use this as a cornerstone to designing your team or company vision and culture. What you do is one thing. Why you do it is the essence of who you are; your values, goals and priorities as an individual, and as a team.

Ask yourself, “Why do you come to work every day? Why do you, as an organization, do what you do?” The why also needs to be identified in every conversation. To do so, you must be willing to replace your desire to be right or prove yourself with insatiable curiosity so that you lead with questions, not answers. This mitigates the resistance that comes from telling people what they should do. Here are a few examples, and ones that require going several questions deeper to get to the core why. “Why do you want to become a manager, why is your family your top priority, why do you believe this is the right solution, what’s the root cause (why) of this logistics and delivery issue, why do you think you have a fear of public speaking,” and so on.

If you want to transform your organization, it starts with transforming your people. And in order to do so, you first need to understand who they are as individuals and why they want to be transformed in the first place into the person they want to become, not who you want them to be. If you want to create collective alignment and a shared vision and direction, you need to seek to understand and respect everyone’s why. It really is the key to a successful cultural transformation and to opening the door to your ideal kingdom. Here’s to becoming the king of your domain. Well, maybe not king, but definitely a world-class leader.

So, what’s your why?