A Case For Putting The WHY In The Driver’s Seat


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou


I believe we’re all teachers in some way. While it may not be a tradition, school, teacher role, our work is our teaching. As far as I’m concerned, if you support the learning, growth, and development of someone else, then you’re a teacher.  And the curriculum is not always obvious. In fact, it is hidden.


I recently read The Heart Of Democracy by Parker Palmer. He mentions that all teachers have “hidden curriculum”. This is the invisible:

  • Nonverbal messages
  • Tone
  • Proximity
  • Affect
  • Body-language
  • Eye contact


The hidden curriculum is what builds or breaks trust in relationships. It’s the nuance. And the difference between leadership and impactful leadership. 


I originally learned about this concept (hidden curriculum) in my teaching credential program years ago. And I’ll be honest–learning and applying are two different things. It took a long time for me to make and SEE the connection. Especially in diverse communities with cultural differences.


Reflecting on my early teaching days, now I see the connections clearly. I cared so deeply about my students and poured my heart into teaching, but I think about all the missed opportunities (and missteps) that occurred because I simply wasn’t aware. Like that time my tone of voice triggered a student who had experienced trauma. Or the time I upset a student when I grabbed a paper out of their hands to see if they did the homework..(the list goes on and on). I look back and realize how much my stress levels and overwhelm impacted them. I see how nuanced skillful, intentional cross-cultural communication is. 


My intentions were pure, but I had so many blindspots that impacted the depth of relationships I was able to maintain across cultural/racial difference. I now see that many of them may have been experienced as micro-aggressions, which doesn’t make me feel proud (more on microaggressions here and here). And as a white, queer woman committed to racial justice, it’s my responsibility to unpack them.


The Johari Window is an excellent place to begin self-awareness of our blind spots. It doesn’t allow us to go back in time and change those missed opportunities, but it will help us be more emotionally intelligent and culturally conscious in future opportunities. Check out my blog about the Johari Window here.


Back to the hidden curriculum…when I connected Parker’s work with Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle work, something clicked for me.


Sustainable, lasting success is rooted in our connection to–and articulation of–the “WHY” behind our work. We start with “WHY” instead of the “what”. The WHY is the heart of our moral imperative, our reason for waking up in the morning. Depending on the leader, sometimes the WHY is hidden and sometimes it’s very explicit.


And dominant culture places immense value on what we do. “What do you do?” is often one of the first questions asked when meeting someone new. Imagine if someone asked instead, “What are you passionate about? What lights you up these days? Why do you get out of bed each day?”


After sharing what you do, then the explanation of how you do it comes into play. “I’m a teacher.” (what) With the follow-up question often being “Oh, what grade?” or “What curriculum do you teach?” (how). That is where the hidden curriculum lives too.


The HOW can be where people get stuck – “I’m a teacher, I teach 3rd grade at___with___”    or “I use___curriculum” – that is still driven from the WHAT.


The person who asked the question is also getting a download of hidden curriculum based on HOW you say what you say, and their unconscious mind is processing all sorts of input (tone, proximity, etc.) making assumptions about how much you care based on your nonverbal cues. That’s pretty deep.


And students are EXPERTS at taking in and translating hidden curriculum. 


Here’s an image that reminds us of leading from the inside-out

Starting with WHY, you can reside in the rules with more creatively and passion. Here’s a response to the question with the WHY in the driver’s seat: “I’m passionate about literacy and learning, and while I have curriculum to follow, there’s room for creative interpretation and connecting to my students’ cultures, which motivates them to think critically and tap into their greatness. I am proud to be a positive role model who shows interest in their life. What I say and do matters.”


Going back to the six pieces of our hidden curriculum (nonverbal, tone, proximity, affect, body-language, and eye contact)–to have a meta-moment, both how we engage in that conversation would change the experience, AND how we describe our work would be very different depending on where we start- with the “what” or the “why”.


In a culture that has the WHAT in the driver’s seat, it takes intentional leadership to let the WHY drive our decisions instead. With the WHY, there’s more feeling, more emotion, more uncertainty, yet we know that when it drives our leadership moves people are more invested and motivated.


It’s the difference between gracefully holding space for everyone to connect to the mission AND to ensure their voices are included, heard, and valued–versus controlling, predictable status quo engagement and communication.


And that’s the point. Like Maya Angelou so beautifully reminded us in the quote at the top, feelings are what count. 


So, who wants to join me in…

  • Paying more attention to how we show up (nonverbal, tone, proximity, affect, body-language, and eye contact)
  • Paying more attention to how we listen (to what’s said AND what’s beneath the words and body language)
  • Practicing patience, allowing capacity for tension-holding (there’s power in the pause)
  • NOT providing all the answers (let people connect their WHY with your WHY–that’s where the magic happens)
  • Improving self-awareness in order to strengthen empathy (consider how you want to be experienced by others + try out the Johari window activity)
  • Planning and preparing with the WHY in mind


As we commit to these improvements, our hidden curriculum shifts from being invisible to visible–and THAT strengthens bonds, builds trust, and changes the game.


I aspire to have the WHY of S.P.A.R.K. and SPARK Leadership be in the fabric of everything that we do, and I’ll always be a work in progress.


The SPARK acronym helps us continue to make the invisible visible:






Speaking of S.P.A.R.K. + planning and committing to improvements, if you’re interested in exploring this conversation further or working together, I’m hosting an upcoming Deep-Dive Strategy week for leaders committed to intentional practices that are grounded in the WHY if you’re interested. Space is limited.


Now I’d love to hear from you.

What questions / connections do you have? Feel free to send a message here or comment below.


Rachel Rosen is on a mission to spark a global conversation about inclusion, racial equity, and courageous leadership. The Founder of S.P.A.R.K., an inclusive community card-game, and S.P.A.R.K. Leadershipshe helps leaders uncover their blindspots and take their diverse team to the next level with intentionality and integrity. With a Masters from Stanford, and extensive training in leadership, coaching, team and organizational development, S.P.A.R.K. experiences are grounded in theory and practice. Discover your S.P.A.R.K. score here.

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