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I was one of the first female fighter helicopter pilots in the US Army. Here's the technique I used to stay motivated while waiting for an assignment.

Shannon Huffman Polson   

I was one of the first female fighter helicopter pilots in the US Army. Here's the technique I used to stay motivated while waiting for an assignment.
  • Shannon Huffman Polson is one of the first female Apache helicopter pilots in the Army; in addition to her military service, she spent five years leading and managing in the corporate sector at Guidant and Microsoft.
  • The following is an excerpt from her new book, "The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience and Leadership in the Most Male Dominated Organization in the World."
  • In it, she describes a technique called the Five Whys, which was developed by Taiichi Ohno, the founder of the Toyota Production System.
  • Essentially, you ask yourself why you do what you do five times, which helps you determine your core purpose.
  • For Polson, this helped her connect to the meaning of wanting to serve — even when times were hard or discouraging.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said that "he who has a why can endure any how." Your purpose is your "why." In my experience, however, asking why often doesn't go far enough. Sometimes doing so only scratches the surface, revealing what Aaron Hurst calls the cause as opposed to the purpose. To dig deeper, deep enough to discover your core purpose, to connect your intellectual sense of purpose with your core purpose, ask yourself why you do what you do not once but five times. Yes, five.

I was first introduced to the Five Whys as a technique developed by Taiichi Ohno, the founder of the Toyota Production System. Ohno used the Five Whys as the technique to drill down into deficiencies, to permit a deeper look into problems. This practice of asking the Five Whys became standard at Toyota and later became part of the Six Sigma training program. By the repetition of inquiry into a given defect, Toyota found itself better able to discern the root causes of failures and avoid creating further problems brought on by quick, surface-level analyses.

How does a manufacturing tactic relate to purpose? By its insistence on getting to root cause, or what I call core purpose.

Your purpose addresses the task at hand. It considers what you are doing now, and why you're doing it. Your core purpose goes deeper. Your core purpose is what drives you today and every day. It is foundational to who you are, what makes you unique, what forms the core of your being. Your story informs your core purpose, and your core purpose informs the future of your story. In the face of so many competing distractions, discerning core purpose takes quiet and focused attention.

In the writing workshops I lead, I use an exercise to introduce the concept of the long, hard look — a necessary step to get to the core truths or meaning the writers are seeking to convey, even if they think they already know. I ask participants to turn toward someone they don't know, and to look directly into their eyes without looking away for a full minute (sometimes two). By the end of the exercise, some participants are squirming, some trying not to laugh, others concentrating hard on pushing through the discomfort. The process is awkward at best, but it can make us realize that the hard look may require us to get uncomfortable.

Most of us aren't willing to face the places in ourselves that might be challenging, pieces of ourselves that we have worked to ignore for any number of reasons. But in writing, as in leadership (and in all of life), we often have to push ourselves to delve deeper than daily life allows in order to find the meaning hidden beneath the surface.

The Five Whys is similar, forcing the long, hard look, beyond and beneath "cause" and even "purpose" in a specific situation, to discover core purpose. By continuing your investigation into purpose until you've drilled down five layers, you'll have moved past the superficial, finding the bedrock of what matters most to you.

Digging into my core purpose

When I reported for duty to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I was twenty-three, newly graduated from Officer Basic Course, the Initial Entry Rotary Wing course, and the Apache attack- helicopter transition course. I was ready to fly and excited to lead my first platoon.

Arriving at Fort Bragg, I was the first woman assigned to the regiment, the only woman out of 120 combat pilots. I was assigned not to the platoon I had hoped for, but instead to serve as the assistant to the assistant S-3 operations officer, of 3rd Battalion, 229th Attack Aviation. I worked for a captain who assigned me to type up presentations and appendixes to operations orders. It was not without value, but it was a long way from where I thought I would have been.

The work soon became deadening, and my frustration heightened when I learned secondhand what a lieutenant in our sister battalion was saying — that I hadn't been assigned a platoon because I wasn't up for it. Never mind that I knew the other lieutenant to be solidly mediocre in every sense. I talked to the captain I was working for, asking him when a platoon might be possible. He looked up from his desk impatiently.

"Lieutenant," he said, "the Army doesn't owe you anything."

I realized with a pang of despair that just because I had been trained didn't mean I would get the chance I had hoped for to be an aviation leader.

Even so, I remembered the adage passed down by my dad, who had learned it from his parents, who came from farm country in Kansas: if you're scrubbing toilets for twenty-five cents, you'd better earn every penny of that doing the best job you can. I knew that regardless of my disappointment, I had to excel at what I was doing and fight against my frustration. In order to do that, I had to find a way to connect to my core purpose — and I did it by asking the Five Whys.

When I first asked myself why I was where I was, why I was doing what I was doing, I started with:

"I'm here to fly and fight in the Apache helicopter and be an Army aviation leader."

That might motivate me temporarily, but it was easy to get stuck in the frustration of what I was not doing: flying and fighting in the Apache helicopter. Becoming an aviation leader may have been my purpose (though from Aaron Hurst's perspective, that job-related answer reflected more of a cause than a purpose), but I was not yet presented with the opportunity to do so, and I had little control over the decisions made. Without being able to change my circumstance, the only option I had available to keep me motivated in my work was connecting to my core purpose. I kept asking the question.

Why did I want to fly and fight in the Apache helicopter and be an aviation leader?

  • Because I'm trained to do so. – Why?
  • Because I earned and requested the training. – Why?
  • Because I wanted to serve my country.

That was a pretty good place to land, but given that I had signed up to join the Army, it was also a little bit too obvious. I forced myself to ask one more time: – Why?

• Because I wanted to serve.

Boom! That was it.

I'd grown up in a patriotic family of Midwestern origin. But more important, I had grown up in a family for which faith and the idea of service were important. As a child, I visited retirement homes with my mother, made sandwiches with our youth group for those who didn't have enough to eat, and drove with my father to deliver food to families who needed it on a Christmas Eve.

I once asked my father, who was newly surprised by a divorce and exhausted from work, why it was that he continued to volunteer so much, serving on boards and on the vestry at church while he worked so many hours. Even as a young teenager, I could see the toll the deep fatigue was taking on him.

He responded by quoting those words from the Gospel of Luke that President Kennedy had borrowed as well: "For those to whom much is given, much is expected."

Growing up with both the demonstration of and espousal of service was a key piece of my makeup, and connecting with this value was important to staying strong and motivated in a job that I saw as discouraging, as possibly even unfair, and, in fleeting moments that seemed to be increasing in frequency, as deadening. By connecting to my core purpose, I could see that I was still serving. This validated the work I was doing and empowered me to act from a place of strength. I may not have been leading a flight platoon yet, but by connecting to my core purpose, I continued to see even the menial tasks as an opportunity to serve, full stop.

Understanding that my core purpose is to serve undergirds all of my subsequent work, informs much of how I spend my time out of uniform, and even more fundamentally, articulates a value that is a significant part of what makes me who I am. It sustains me when times are hard and gives me direction when I feel the need to course-correct. Drilling down to core purpose is fundamental to accessing and developing grit.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience and Leadership in the Most Male Dominated Organization in the World by Shannon Huffman Polson. Copyright 2020 Shannon Huffman Polson. Copyright 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All right reserved.


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