Catechetical studies clarify roadmap for life

I always like graduation season and this year, my wife Susan and I got to participate in one. Along with about 200 other people who made up the Class of St. Gianna Molla, we graduated from the Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute on May 10, concluding two years of study. We were the seventh class to graduate since the launch of the Catechetical Institute.

The course was divided into four semesters, each 12 weeks long. Lectures took place every Monday evening on the campus of the University of St. Thomas, with two Saturday morning “reflection” sessions each semester. There were reading and writing assignments every week; students concluded each semester by writing a substantial paper.

Susan and I found the study to be quite meaningful and we highly recommend it to anyone interested in developing their faith. The program gave me the means to develop a deeper relationship with God. As a person with a bachelor’s degree from a Big Ten university, I can say this was, by far, the most important education I have received in my entire life.

Diving into the Catechism of the Catholic Church has helped me to understand Catholicism as far more than a collection of Bible stories, a set of moral “dos and don’ts,” and daily opportunities to attend Mass. The Catechism is a clear roadmap for living.

As adults, we naturally want to know what we should do. Why are we on this earth in the first place? It would be nice if there was a map laying out a path. The Catechism describes that path.

First, we have to know and understand what we believe. What are the non-negotiables in life? The first of four “pillars” in the Catechism takes up that challenge, describing the creed, our set of beliefs as Catholics.

With those beliefs defined, we realize we need God’s grace to act on those beliefs. Left to our own devices, we will fail, but with God all things are possible and we can fulfill our mission on earth. So how do we get those graces? The second pillar of the Catechism provides instruction about the sacraments – the seven, real-life opportunities we have to encounter God, grow closer to him, be freed from our sins, and build the faith and strength we need to live a meaningful life. The sacraments are real touchpoints where we can literally connect with God in a physical way.

With a clear understanding of our foundational beliefs, and opportunities to receive God’s powerful graces, we have what we need to actually live according to God’s will. The third pillar of the Catechism is the moral life, a discussion of the guidance God has given us about practical ways to conduct ourselves. With the 10 Commandments as our guide, we can thoughtfully decide what actions to take in life, and what actions to avoid.

With our beliefs clarified, God’s grace to act on those beliefs, and the commandments to guide those actions, we are ready to enter into deep relationship with our Maker. The fourth pillar is prayer, which is the process of entering into dialogue with God. There is no relationship without communication; prayer is communication with God.

Consider, for example, the commandments as an essential part of that roadmap. With the instruction of the Catechetical Institute, I am struck by the depth of each of the commandments. When we learned them as young children, they seemed like a checklist, to be verified prior to confession. This study has helped me to see the commandments as so much more. What strikes me is that if we were to thoroughly live any one of the commandments, we would, in fact, be living all 10 of them. You can argue that each commandment is restating what is required for us to live in alignment with God’s will, and if we were to live any one of these completely, we would be fulfilling the requirements of the other nine commandments as well.

The eighth commandment, for example, prohibits us from lying. The Catechism goes into depth about what it means to live in the truth. We think of truth telling as being a matter of the spoken or written word. This sounds like a small matter, yet the word is what God used to create the world. John’s gospel opens: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.” So we can see where sinning against the word is a major offense.

The eighth commandments is about upholding the integrity of the word, which of course means not lying, but it also means living in accord with God, with those around us. That would mean honoring God (1st and 3rd Commandments), not using our word to take unnecessary oaths (2nd Commandment), respecting the human family and the social order (4th commandment), not harming others (5th commandment) and especially not our spouse (6th and 9th commandments), and respecting the proper order of stewardship God has given people over his gifts (7th and 10th commandments).

Susan and I went into the Catechetical Institute studies two years ago with the expectation of learning more about our faith. We conclude our studies having received so much more — a roadmap for living.

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The letter I wish someone would have written to me when I was a teen

One of the most important qualities a person can have is integrity. This is the quality of being consistent throughout. For example, if a block of cement used to build a bridge is solid all the way through (there are no cracks on the interior), it is said to have integrity.

When it comes to people, we say they have integrity when we trust they act and speak in a consistent manner, that they say what they mean and mean what they say. They act in an honorable fashion regardless of whether people are watching. They don’t say one thing in public and something else in private. Integrity means a person is the same on the inside as they are on the outside.  People who have integrity are trustworthy.

Trust is an important aspect of any relationship. Two people really can’t get along very well if they don’t trust each other. People who do trust each other can share rich, meaningful relationships. For young men and young women, a commitment to chastity makes these relationships possible. A wise person once said the fruit of chastity is friendship. Trust makes this so.

Chastity simply means respecting human dignity – your own and the other person’s. Living a chaste relationship means seeing that relationship in the proper context of society, each relationship having an important and distinct role. Married couples have their role, dating couples have their role, and single people hoping to one day find a life-partner have their role.

Chastity and integrity go together in the sense that chaste actions need to be the result of chaste thoughts. It doesn’t really do any good to pretend a relationship is one thing in public while it is something else in private. Our society is filled with hurting people caught up in these kinds of broken relationships.

A relationship that lasts – whether platonic or romantic – is based on love. Love means to will the good of the other, even if it means less for yourself. People think love is all about fireworks and passion, but that is only a small part of it. The more important components of a meaningful life-long relationship are gratitude, humility, sacrifice, honesty, prudence, temperance and courage.

A marriage relationship is special among all the social interaction that leads to human flourishing. A marriage doesn’t just bring together a man and a woman; it brings together two families. This means that getting married requires a lot more than just love for your betrothed; it requires a respect and fondness of her entire extended family.

There’s a commandment about loving your parents; years ago when I asked my pastor if that applies to in-laws he said “yes” without hesitation. And that is as it should be. Love celebrates life. It brings people together. It makes things bigger than they were. People who think love is about running away with that special someone in order to escape the world are fooling themselves. Love is really about transforming the world and that means you have to be in the midst of it.

What does this mean for a young man in his teens?  Your head and heart may be pulling you in opposite directions. At times your mind or body may be in conflict with your conscience. While you may feel alone, you are not. You have parents and family, church and school communities, neighbors and friends who all want you to succeed. It is good for teens to develop interests or hobbies. Think about your purpose in life and then establish goals to help you fulfill that purpose.  Usually that means things like studying harder, reading more, training, practicing, and working. These are all good things. When you have a reason to stay on the right track, it is easier to stay off the wrong track.

We are all in this together. Your true success and happiness means a little more success and happiness for all those around you. Be humble, be strong; be patient, be honest; be selfless and be courageous – on the outside and on the inside. Be a man of integrity.

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A simple approach to any endeavor

I want to share something I learned recently in a class I took at a local university. It is the four “R”s for approaching a project. They are: Read, reflect, respond and relax. Let me explain.

Read – When you are about to do anything, you need to study the situation as much as you can. Gather data, talk to people who have done something similar, read all you can about it, so that you understand what you are getting into.

Reflect – Once you have gathered data and information, take time to reflect on what you have found. Do you have enough information to truly understand what you are undertaking? What else to you need to know before you can make an informed decision about how to proceed? What experience have others had trying something similar? How can you do better? There are a myriad of questions you can ask yourself, but the point is to take time to seriously consider what you are trying to do, based on the information you collected during the “read” phase.

Respond – Once you have gathered all the relevant information, and considered it thoroughly, then respond. This is where most projects fall apart. Many people have aspirations. They say they want to do things. Perhaps they even gather information about their potential project and make a plan for carrying through with it. But when it comes to execution, they don’t get around to it. They let other things get in the way. They get distracted. They simply don’t follow through. Obviously, if you are serious about anything, you need to respond. Take the information you have, and the plan you have developed and actually follow through.

Relax – After you have completed the project or endeavor, take some time to relax and savor your accomplishment. You might even want to celebrate. So often, people launch right into the next project without taking sufficient time to appreciate what’s been accomplished. If you have worked for a long time on something, take a proportionate break upon completion. You will be setting yourself up for success on the next project. A little rejuvenation goes a long way.

This is a pretty simple formula but I think it succinctly summarizes a sound method for approaching just about anything you might attempt to do at the office, at home or elsewhere.

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‘Road to Character’ is thought provoking book

Gratitude is rightly the virtue we think of during Thanksgiving week, and of course there is much for which to be grateful. I want to write about two people for whom I am grateful: Augustine, the fourth century Bishop, and David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author. In his book published earlier this year, “The Road to Character,” Brooks offers a look into the lives of nine historical figures, including Augustine.

By looking at the character of these people, Brooks helps today’s reader take a look at their own character — a somewhat frightening proposition but certainly worthwhile. The Road to Character is the most impactful book I have read in a long time.

The subjects of the profiles are people like Francis Perkins, who was the Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, President Dwight Eisenhower, and George Marshall, the general. There are others, including Augustine, which he writes about in a chapter he names “Ordered Love.”

Brooks writes on page 206 in my hardback edition: “In Augustine’s view, people do not get what they deserve; life would be hellish if they did. Instead people get much more than they deserve.” This little reflection captures so much of Christian belief and the universal moral ethic. We can choose to believe that we have earned everything we have, which would be a very limited view of our blessings, or we can attempt to see all our blessings, which will quickly outnumber any list of personal achievements, accomplishments or accumulation.

One of the main ideas behind the book is that culture has become one of self-promotion, based on the notion that we can find fulfillment by looking within and working individually to make our own happiness. The examples of character which Brooks presents make the argument that we would be much more likely to find fulfillment by making one’s self small, by connecting with others, and by looking outward to find ways to make others happy.

The Road to Character is not about religion but the book’s universal themes are inescapable. Let me share these paragraphs from Brook’s section on
Augustine (page 192):

Augustine’s feelings of fragmentation have its modern corollary in the way many contemporary young people are plagued by a frantic fear of missing out. The world has provided them with a super-abundance of neat things to do. Naturally, they hunger to seize every opportunity and taste every experience. They want to grab all the goodies in front of them. They want to say yes to every product in the grocery store. They are terrified of missing out on anything that looks exciting. But by not renouncing any of them they spread themselves thin. What’s worse, they turn themselves into goodie seekers, greedy for every experience and exclusively focused on self. If you live in this way, you turn into a shrewd tactician, making a series of cautious semi-commitments without really surrendering to some larger purpose. You lose the ability to say a hundred noes for the sake of one overwhelming and fulfilling yes.

Augustine found himself feeling increasingly isolated. If you organize your life around your own wants, other people become objects for the satisfaction of your own desires. Everything is coldly instrumental. Just as a prostitute is rendered into an object for the satisfaction of orgasm, so a professional colleague is rendered into an object for the purpose of career networking, a stranger is rendered into an object for the sake of making a sale, a spouse is turned into an object for the purpose of providing you with love.

I remember John Paul II telling us that the opposite of loving someone is not to hate them but to use them. I guess he got the idea from Augustine. David Brooks does a masterful job of explaining the concept in 21st century language.

In the last chapter of the book, Brooks recalls life’s big questions: “Toward what should I orient my life? Who am I and what is my nature? How do I mold my nature to make it gradually better day by day?” He offers 15 propositions for consideration to the person attempting to answer these questions. There is much good material in these propositions, but here let me offer for your consideration a sentence out of No. 13:

A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us.

My business experience gives me knowledge of numerous people who have found professional fulfillment by surveying the landscape, identifying needs and then committing themselves to responding to those needs in a meaningful way. I call these people entrepreneurs, which I have no doubt is a vocation.

Let me close by going back to the chapter on Augustine. Brooks describes what he calls the “Augustine process” (page 208):

It starts with the dive inside to see the vastness of the inner cosmos. The inward dive leads outward, toward an awareness of external truth and God. That leads to humility as one feels small in contrast to the almighty. That leads to a posture of surrender, of self-emptying, as one makes space for God. That opens the way for you to receive God’s grace. That gift arouses an immense feeling of gratitude, a desire to love back, to give back and to delight. That in turn wakens vast energies. Over the centuries many people have been powerfully motivated to delight God. This motivation has been as powerful as the other great motivations, the desire for money, fame, and power.

The genius of this concept is that as people become more dependent on God, their capacity for ambition and action increases. Dependency doesn’t breed passivity; it breeds energy and accomplishment.

If you know an adult who is trying to figure out life, who is open to serious ideas about life’s meaning, you might consider “The Road to Character” as a Christmas gift.

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Encyclical is a call to unity more than critique on energy use

I first heard the term “butterfly effect” some years ago when an economist was explaining how the price of bread in Fargo could be affected by the weather in China. Just as some scientists have speculated that weather patterns in Texas can be affected by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, a loaf of bread in North Dakota can cost more if a sparse wheat harvest in China drives the world price of flour to record highs. Economists learn early on that everything is related, and we can learn by studying those relationships. Furthermore, posits the Catholic Church, we can grow deeper in human fulfillment by studying relationships in reference to a universal central being whom we call God.

Pope Francis emphasizes that everything is related in his recent encyclical, “On Care for our Common Home.” Also called Laudato Si’, this teaching letter was published earlier this year. It’s a 65 page book that many people call a treatise on global warming but it would be a shame to miss the broader message about our relationship with God in this document because we focus too much on language about the importance of renewable energy.

In order to live in peace, we need to understand our relationship to God; and we need to understand that relationship in the context of His creation, the Pope says. If we put God at the center of creation, we can begin to have the right relationships which make peace possible; if we put ourselves at the center of creation, then we are prone to misuse the rest of creation.

In summary, the Pope tells us that all things are connected, and that there is a relationship between humans and nature that God expects us to honor. If we don’t know how to treat each other, then we won’t know how to treat nature. This is the state we find ourselves in and the Pope tries to lay out a corrective path. The fix isn’t so much the adoption of renewable fuels as it is about placing God at the center of our being. Sure, Pope Francis talks about energy conservation (for about 25 percent of the document) but he speaks much more earnestly about getting our relationship right with God (for about 75 percent of the document).

Francis lays it out as early as page two: “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves.” Much more than asking us to use less energy, the Pope is asking us to consider how we should be living in the first place: “He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs.” My, oh my; that’s a much greater challenge than simply asking us to give up air conditioning.

Laying plain the foundational theology for the encyclical, the Pope says: “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain…profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself.” Pope Francis is inviting us to consider our relationships — and to consider them in the order presented in scripture: God first, our neighbor second and earth third.

The Pope instructs: “Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbor…ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth.”…In that same paragraph (70) he says: “Everything is connected…genuine care for our own lives and our relationship with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.”

The Pope cautions that “the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment.”

When the Pope says “every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment,” he is talking about far more than carbon emissions. He is seeing the term “environment” in an all-encompassing matter.

“Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many  problems of society are connected with today’s self-centered culture of instant gratification,” he says. I think the media dubbed this a document about climate change because it is much easier to contemplate a world running on renewable energy sources than it is to imagine a world in right relationship with God and neighbor.

Pope Francis raises scientific and political questions throughout this document, but he qualifies: “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.” The Church knows its place, but it demands that other social institutions exercise their rightful authority as well, as broadly as is possible but also within their true limits.

The political and economic manifestation of an unbalanced relationship can result in excessive consumerism, and the Pope makes that point. “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume…Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.” This is a far more challenging statement than anything the Pope says about how much fuel we should use. “Purchasing,” he says, “is always a moral and not simply economic act.”

With a selfish attitude, it is impossible to think of those around us, and the nature around us, as we should. “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.” The Pope is calling us to unity.

The Pope holds out the Trinity as an example (No. 240): “The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfillment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.”


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Open Window Theatre’s Lilies of the Field is an Inspiration

If you’ve ever wondered what a miracle looks like, go see The Lilies of the Field playing at the Open Window Theatre and you’ll see the answer: it looks like Homer Smith.

The downtown Minneapolis theater is presenting a stage adaptation of the William Barrett novel and 1963 movie with Sidney Poitier through May 25. Artistic Director Jeremy Stanbary and director Joy Donley make the most of a minimalist set to create a wonderful night of music and story-telling .

Smith, an African-American Baptist wondering about the country taking day jobs where he pleases, finds himself in the Arizona desert where a group of East German immigrant nuns have set up shop. There is lots of work to be done and Smith agrees to help repair their roof. Mother Maria Marthe, the mother superior, convinces Smith to build the sisters a chapel. Smith agrees, not knowing how the job will ever get done given their lack of resources. Over the course of the play, people in surrounding villages donate the needed supplies and labor, and the chapel gets built. Smith leaves and everyone calls the construction of the chapel a miracle. In the closing scenes, some of the people we meet in the play tell us with great price about their connections to the saint – Homer Smith – who made this happen. 

I like this play for a lot of reasons. First the acting is marvelous: Lamar Jefferson does a great job as Homer Smith. Second, there is some really delightful music by Christopher Erickson. And third, the play’s message really gives the audience something to think about.

The story shows us that one person can do a lot – in this case, a lot more than the person initially himself thinks he can do. It shows us the power of encouragement from someone else. Smith persevered because Mother Maria Marthe believed in him. She is the person who identified Smith as the answer to her prayers, and although Smith resisted that description early on, he eventually accented to that role.

Lilies of the Field shows us that if we are truly being called by God to build something, we should move forward even if we don’t have every detail figured out in advance. This doesn’t mean it will be easy. The nuns in the play lived an austere life, worked hard and prayed hard. There was a little friction at times between Smith and the nuns, and at one point Smith abandoned them and the project. Smith was stubborn and thought he needed to follow his own will. The beauty of the play is the way in which he came around to doing God’s will, at least as the nuns saw it.

Furthermore, I love what came out of that miraculous construction project. The narrator of the play tells us the chapel became the centerpiece of a haven for troubled children who came to the nun’s encampment for rejuvenation. Many other buildings eventually were constructed around the chapel as others took interest in what was going on there. Smith himself moved on so he didn’t see all the good his work led to, but he did what he was called to do. The first phase in any project is often the most difficult.

Lilies of the Field is an encouraging and inspiring story. Watch closely. God may be calling you to be the next Homer Smith.

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Know your strengths

If you work in a small shop like I do, you know you spend most of your time putting out fires – that is, handling day-to-day obligations. It is very difficult for leaders in smaller enterprises to make time for visioning. But instinctively we know it is important. The leader of every company, whether large or small, must set aside time for contemplation. If you don’t take time to visualize the future, you may never see it at all. If you can’t see where you are going, you will never get anywhere.

The most important thing for any leader to know is self. If you don’t know who you are, you will never be able to significantly help anyone, including employees and customers.

A leader doesn’t have to be good at everything but it sure helps if he or she knows his/her strengths and weaknesses. That way, strengths can be leveraged and compensation can be made for weaknesses.

I recently came across a book published by the Gallup organization in 2008 called “Strengths Based Leadership: Great leaders, teams and why people follow,” by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie. Using results from thousands of interviews, the authors explain why it makes sense to invest in your strengths. The book is 266 pages but you only need to read the first 95 pages to get the message.

Each copy of Strengths Based Leadership provides a unique code that gives the reader access to a test-taking web site where your strengths can be identified. The test poses nearly 200 questions, allowing 20 seconds for each response. Questions typically pose two ideas and require the respondent to choose one over the other on a sliding scale.

When you are done, the computer summarizes your responses. My own test results gave me something to think about. Results identified strengths that I expected but they also identified areas where I need to work, some in areas that surprised me. Hmmmm. Maybe that’s why I seem stuck on some projects I have been working on for a long time! These results give me another way to think about these projects.

It’s the middle of March so if you made any New Year’s resolutions, you’ve surely blown them already. But it’s still early enough in the year to set new goals and see results by Christmas. No matter what goals you have for you or your organization, you will have a better chance of arriving at your desired destination if you have a solid understanding of where you are starting from.

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Reflections six years after the financial crisis

It was six years ago that the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Department of the Treasury helped to facilitate the acquisition of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase. The deal was sealed on a Sunday, March 16. JP Morgan Chase bought the bank for $2 per share or about $236 million; 15 months prior the stock market valuation of Bear Stearns was about $20 billion.

Although the mortgage market had started to crumble in 2007, I consider the Bear Stearns event in 2008 to be the beginning of the financial crisis. Several shocking events disrupted the financial markets in the months to come: IndyMac failed in July after comments by Sen. Chuck Schumer triggered a run on the bank, regulators took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in September, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, and on Oct. 12 the U.S. Treasury called the heads of nine of the largest financial institutions in for a meeting where Henry Paulson doled out $125 billion.

This sequence of events will be studied by economic historians for decades. Technology and securitization fostered the growth of a global interconnected financial system that outpaced regulatory effectiveness. In fact, our laws, such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, only hastened the concentration of assets and made the situation worse. While the FDIC had a fine-tuned system in place for handling small bank failures, the government really didn’t know what to do when the biggest players got in trouble. They made it up as they went along – save Bear Stearns, let Lehman fail – sending all kinds of mixed signals.

The Dodd-Frank Act passed in July 2010 was supposed to codify a procedure for handling the failure of a super-large financial institution. That’s reassuring, although the Washington, D.C.-Wall Street axis remains troubling. Wall Street executives have a long history of putting in stints at Treasury. Jack Lew, the current Treasury Secretary, is a former Citibank employee, which makes me wonder what will happen if Citibank becomes the first institution to test those new big-bank failure proceedings Dodd-Frank gives us. Is it a coincidence that the investment firm to do best during the crisis was Goldman Sachs, Paulson’s former employer? In the end, too-big-to-fail is more a matter of political will than a matter of administrative procedure.

A healthy financial marketplace requires everyone to play by the same rules. We can’t have bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. picking winners and losers. Despite the best intentions of all the elected office-holders and the officials in the various departments and agencies, it just ends up looking like crony capitalism where a select few get special treatment. As a country, we can do better than that.


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What’s your ‘Why’?

I invite you to think about the why behind your business. Running a business, especially these days, is not for the faint of heart. In order to succeed you need to know why you are in it. Simon Sinek has made a name for himself helping people find their why. I encourage you to check out his website and watch his TED talk at

The tendency in business is to start with “what,” as in what are we going to do? The next consideration is “how” – how are we going to identify potential customers? And finally, after figuring out what to do and how to do it, you think about why you are doing it.

Often, business owners say they are in business “to make money,” but it’s really more than that. There are a lot of ways to make money but you chose your specific business. Why? Sinek urges people to start with why. He contends that once a person figures out their why, they will have a much clearer sense about how to proceed and what to do.

I know this is true in my own case. At NFR Communications, my business, our why is about strengthening small businesses. I am passionate about this purpose. How do we strengthen small businesses? We do it by working directly with the banking industry. By providing information, ideas and analysis to community bankers, we enable bankers to be more effective small business partners through lending, other financial products, and counsel. The “what” in our case is NorthWestern Financial Review magazine and its accompanying website.

With a clear sense of why, you have a better chance of arriving at an effective answer to “what?” Instead of viewing why as the destination, view it as the engine. You have heard about purpose-driven enterprises; these are run by folks who know what their why is.

A strong sense of why is important because the best customers are those with whom you share a strong sense of mission. When two entities share a mission, they become partners. Relationships — business and otherwise — rooted in a common mission have a much better chance of enduring than relationships based on other factors such as price, convenience or even service.

So what’s your why? If you aren’t sure, take some time to think about it.

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A look at the qualities of success

While economic growth in the United States has been slow since 2008, some businesses have done very well in the last few years. Consider the 250 businesses that are finalists in Ernst & Young’s 2013 Entrepreneur of the Year program. These businesses are expanding, creating jobs and making money.

Last year, Ernst & Young teamed up with the Kaufman Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship, to survey the leadership of the 2012 finalists. How is it that some managers lead their companies to growth at a time when so many other managers hunkered down, just trying to keep their doors open? The research showed that successful entrepreneurs:

Have a unique perspective on risk. A majority of the entrepreneurs indicate they believe entrepreneurs are born, not made. These folks have a passion for identifying unmet needs in the marketplace and then set out to meet them.

Communicate their vision and instill passion in great teams. These companies overwhelmingly cite people as their leading priority. This is in sharp contrast to well-established global companies, many of which have been more interested in implementing efficiency and productivity increases that translate into headcount reductions.

Demonstrate resilience and rapid recovery. While all businesses make bad decisions from time to time, the best entrepreneurs and their teams seem to bounce back from those mistakes with minimal damage, many even learn from their mistakes and emerge stronger.

Embrace innovation. Established companies tend to resist radical innovation that might displace their existing revenue streams in the short term. Successful entrepreneurs know that their agility and propensity for innovation can make them an attractive investment, acquisition or partnership target.

Do what they do best. High-growth entrepreneurs focus on the things they do best and find partners to handle the technology, administration and anything else outside their expertise.

Preserve what they’ve built. Successful entrepreneurs look to preserve those qualities that made them a market leader. Their top concerns: preserving company culture, attracting and maintaining top talent, protecting and enhancing brand/reputation and retaining best customers.

Has your organization been performing at peak during the last few years? If not, think about these qualities. If they don’t describe your company, what would it take to develop these qualities among at your company?

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