Processed with Snapseed.

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek is one of those books that appears again and again on lists of leadership books that everyone should read. And before I get to the review, I want to point out two shortcomings that I often find in books in the leadership genre. First, many leadership books could fit in the space of a few blog posts or newsletter articles. Second, they often reduce complex historical figures and events to bullet point lessons in leadership. They are, in short, often bloated and reductive. And while those criticisms are also true of Start With Why, they aren’t really criticisms of this book. They’re simply statements about the genre that this book participates in.

With that out of the way, I’ll get to what Start With Why is about. Because despite the shortcomings, there’s something important going here. Sinek has a surprisingly simple theory about the difference between leaders and those who lead: leaders start with why. And he also has a simple theory about where things go wrong: we lose sight of the why and focus on the how and the what.

I’ll break this out into a few main points in a moment, but first a note on terminology. One division that Sinek makes is between ‘leaders’ and ‘those who lead’. Unfortunately, because of the way the language works, he uses the word ‘leaders’ in two ways: to indicate those who he classifies as ‘leaders’ and to indicate those who he classifies as ‘those who lead’.

What he actually means is something more like this. On the one hand, there are those who dominate their fields or who are in charge of industries, movements, or companies. On the other hand, there are those who provide true leadership. The latter may or may not dominate or be in charge. So, for example, Apple is not the leading manufacturer of home computers, but the company does provide real leadership in the computer industry (and other industries, as well).

Now, on to the main points.

The Golden Circle

The key to Sinek’s theory is the Golden Circle. Sinek will try to make this circle do a lot of work. He’ll try to connect it to the limbic and neocortical parts of the brain, he’ll turn it into a cone that mirrors organizational structures, he’ll make it a megaphone. All of that seems like a bit much. The really important thing is the circle itself.

The Golden Circle is three concentric circles labelled, from outside to inside: What, How, and Why.

The what is the thing that most of us can articulate: “Everyone is easily able to describe the products or services a company sells or the job function they have within that system. WHATs are easy to identify.” (Sinek, 39)

The how isn’t as obvious as the what. It is one thing that sets the what of an organization apart: the differentiating value proposition, the unique selling proposition, etc.

The why is even less obvious, and few organizations (or people) are able to articulate it: “By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?” (Sinek, 39)

Again, the language here can be confusing. The what is usually simple, but the how and the why can be a little confusing. The how, for example, isn’t necessarily a process; it’s simply a difference between the what that we produce and the what that other people or organizations produce. So, for example, two companies might have the same what (computers, for example). One company produces computers that are cheap, utilitarian, and mass marketed (their how). The other produces computers that are expensive, elegant, and boundary pushing (their how). While the processes to produce these two categories are obviously going to be different, those processes aren’t really the how; the how is found in what makes each what distinct.

The why of these two companies is also different. The first company might make its cheap, utilitarian computers because it firmly believes that having a computer levels the playing field between the small entrepreneur and the giant corporation. It makes the computers it makes so that everyone has access. The second company makes more expensive, innovative computers because it believes in pushing the boundaries of the technology. It makes the computers it makes so that the technology improves (and, eventually, those innovations become so widespread that the first company is using them, too).

This is the Golden Circle: here’s what we do, here’s how it is different from similar whats, and here’s the animating force behind this whole project.

Leading and Communicating from Why

Sinek’s big idea is that true leadership and effective communication start from the why (and fall apart when they start from somewhere else). There is a reason that Apple (Sinek uses Apple as an example a lot) commands a loyal following and can move seamlessly from computers to mp3 players to phones to tablets in a way that its competitors can’t: purchasers aren’t just buying Apple’s products, they’re buying into Apple’s vision.

Leaders lead from why. The how and the what follow from and serve the why. So, for example. Southwest Airlines has a why that’s something like ‘serving common people’: in an era when very few people travelled by air, they wanted to provide air travel to people who thought it was outside of their price range. They weren’t competing with the big airlines, but with the car and bus and train. (Sinek, 70). What they did was provide air travel. How they did it was by adopting best practices while keeping travel cheap, fun, and simple. Everything fed the vision of providing air travel to common people.

And people loved it. Southwest fliers are so fiercely loyal that after September 11, 2001, when airlines were having huge financial trouble, they sent money to the company so that it could keep going.

Beyond that, when other companies tried to imitate Southwest, they failed. United and Delta could do the same things in the same way, but their customers hadn’t bought into the same vision. People who flew Southwest weren’t going to defect to Delta. And people who were loyal to Delta were loyal to what Delta already did, not to a new, cheap, simple subsidiary. What people follow isn’t the what or the how. It’s the why.

When I talk to people about fundraising, I sometimes say something like this: we often say that we want to sit down with people face-to-face, but what we really want to do is stand with people shoulder-to-shoulder. We want to to be looking at the same vision with our donors, staff, clients, etc., so that we can see the same goal and help each other get there.

When It Falls Apart

As Sinek points out, plenty of leaders and organizations begin with clear whys, but as time goes by things fall apart. He goes into detail on two ways that this happens, and I want to add a third.

The first is that they step outside of their why. Sinek’s example is Volkswagen. Volkswagen had built their why around the idea of providing well-engineered cars to common people. So, of course, in 2004 they introduced a $70,000 luxury car. According to Sinek, it didn’t work (though it was produced through March of this year and a second generation model is on the slate) because it didn’t fit with Volkswagen’s why. Despite being an excellent car and being manufactured by Volkswagen, it wasn’t… well, a Volkswagen.

The second is that they become obsessed with the what (and maybe the how) and start ignoring the why. Sink’s example here is Walmart. In Sinek’s version of the Walmart story, Sam Walton founded the company with a vision of service to his community: it helped people by providing jobs and offering low priced products. After Walton passed and the company moved on, it became obsessed with simply making lots of money by keeping prices low. And they did this even if it meant hurting employees and customers. Walmart became obsessed with the what (and a little bit with the how) at the expense of its why.

The third – that I’m adding and that’s more about people than organizations – returns to a point I made earlier: they confuse leading with being in charge. The problem here isn’t necessarily about knowledge. The person who is in charge might really know and understand the what and the how and the why. The problem here is about helping other people see the vision. The person who is in charge can tell others what to do and how to do them so that they’re distinct from similar whats; but they don’t articulate the why and they don’t get others to buy into the vision.

All three of these drift away from a clear, lived understanding of the why and make the message (and product) less compelling. Volkswagen customers aren’t primed to buy a luxury vehicle. Walmart has become synonymous with greed and corruption. People in charge end up wondering how they can be leaders when they have no followers. When the why gets lost in the shuffle, the organization stumbles.

What Gets Measured, Gets Done

There’s one final thing to note. This is based on a common business principle (and Sinek says it outright): what gets measured, gets done. To lead from why, we need the ways that measure results to also be based in why. Sinek’s example looks at two debt collection agencies. One measures its success based on how much money each collector brought in. This turned those collectors – normally nice people – into terrible, threatening people. The other measures its success based on how many thank you notes the collectors wrote. This reinforced the culture that its owner wanted to build, meant that the collectors could remain gracious people, and resulted in more collections!

We often measure results based on our what (and maybe our how). In business, this means measuring success by how much money earned or how many units moved. In fundraising, this means measuring success by how much money raised. But when we measure on those bases, we lose sight of the why and become less effective. We need to ask how we can measure and encourage our why as well as our what and our how.


There’s a lot that I’ve left out here. As I wrote earlier, Sinek tries to make the Golden Circle do a lot of work: connecting it to the brain (the why and how to the limbic system, for example) and making it a cone and a megaphone. But those aren’t the important parts of Start With Why. In many ways, what Sinek is doing is expanding on the idea of the Hedgehog Concept defined by Jim Collins in Good to Great: an disciplined focus on doing one thing. For Sinek, that thing is the why.

There are moments in Start With Why when I wonder if Sinek got a bit too focused on the what (writing a book) and the how (about the power of why) and lost some sight of the why (to help people create long-lasting success). The organization of the book leaves something to be desired, and the huge number of examples leaves each of them a bit shallow. But the key point remains compelling: success – and leadership – starts with why.

Free (New Kensington, PA)


One of my pet peeves is the marketing tactic I call ‘free-not-free.’

For example, a nonprofit consulting firm or software company might offer a ‘free’ white paper with research and advice on fundraising, social media, web design, or a dozen other subjects. All you have to do is enter your contact information in the little form.

What you expect is cutting edge research and professional advice on a real problem. And maybe a welcome email and the occasional update from that company. At most, a weekly newsletter.

What you actually get is a nice infographic or booklet of information you could have found on Google. And a sales call from that company. And daily emails advertising products and workshops and webinars and conferences.

That’s free-not-free. You’re not paying money. You’re paying time and annoyance.

And look, I get why companies do it: it’s an easy way to build a customer list. The company puts some light research out there; 10,000 people download the paper and put their info in the form; and if just 1% of them become customers, that’s 100 new customers at $10 a month. Over a year, that’s $12,000 in new revenue over the course of a year. And that’s if the company only does it once.

But it’s also a lousy thing to do. So, if you’re tempted to do something that’s free-not-free, step away from that ledge. Instead of saying that the white paper or infographic or booklet is free, tell us that we’re going to get a sales call and how often we can expect emails.

After all, isn’t that the kind of treatment you would like to receive?


People I Read: Maeve Strathy

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is Maeve Strathy (and the other folks) at What Gives???.

I’m writing about Maeve Strathy this week partly because I was critical of a post of hers early last week. The fact is that I like most of the content at What Gives???. Strathy and the other writers there provide rock solid advice on fundraising. And it’s advice that I think is particularly useful for small shops because it’s advice that often cuts to the quick of fundraising challenges. It’s advice that helps me do my work even when I don’t have a lot of resources – funding, staff, etc. – to put behind it.

Moreover, and importantly, Strathy is willing to question her own assumptions and statements. She loves the idea of ‘donor love’. She’s also willing to say that it has its limits. She likes the idea of talking about beneficiaries as assets. She’s also willing to admit that she may not have communicated her idea as well as she would have liked. That’s something that I respect a lot, especially in an era when criticism tends to cause us to dig in deeper.

So go read the folks at What Gives???. Especially if you’re looking to be an effective fundraiser in a small shop.


Bartolomé de las Casas… and Beyond

In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day (or Columbus Day), I link to this comic from The Oatmeal. It includes this great statement:

Bartolomé de las Casas started out a lot like Columbus.

He was a wealthy adventurer who traveled to the New World, where he owned a large plantation with many slaves.

Unlike Columbus, however, de las Casas underwent a radical transformation in his life. After witnessing the violent atrocities committed against the natives, he gave up his land, freed his slaves, became a priest, and spent the rest of his life fighting the brutal colonization of the New World… He is considered to be one of the first advocates for universal human rights.

Matthew Inman, the author of The Oatmeal uses a phrase: radical transformation. But what de las Cases did wasn’t just a transformation. He repented. He admitted that what he had done and how he had lived was wrong and then he lived differently. Inman includes a note on this after the comic, quoting de las Casas: “I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery… and I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God.”

And if we’re going to celebrate de las Casas, I think there’s power in the fact that he repented. Let’s not remember de las Casas only for his work fighting for the equality of Native Americans, but for the fact that he admitted he was wrong and changed.

As Inman puts it: “Christopher Columbus left his home and found a new world. Bartolomé de las Casas left his home and discovered his humanity.”

But as important as de las Casas is, I’ll also link to this strong critique:

In suggesting that we should replace “Columbus Day” with a seemingly less problematic “Bartolome Day,” Inman misses the mark even more egregiously. As far as folks associated with the early Spanish Empire go, Bartolome de las Casas is as admirable a figure as they come. He was, after his conversion in 1514, a consistent opponent of European enslavement of Natives and their continued exploitation. The problem of shifting Columbus from the stage and subbing in Las Casas is that it continues to center the memory of the Columbian Exchange on European men. Trading one unsympathetic European for a more sympathetic one continues to obscure the history of the people most impacted by the Columbian Exchange and the “discovery” of America: aboriginal Americans. The post-1492 Americas were certainly a new world for Europeans but it was also a new world for Native Americans who saw their world reshaped by the largest ecological revolution in human history.

I’m not sure, but it’s possible that realizing that other people have stories – and taking the time to listen to and understand those stories – might be the first step on the road to repentance.

Asset Allocation

Turning Beneficiaries into Assets (and Why It’s Not a Good Thing)

Sometime around 1739, the founders of London’s Foundling Hospital were the first people in the modern age to use the word ‘philanthropy’ to mean the project of forming “a voluntary enterprise of private persons, moved by ‘an Inclination to promote Publick Good.’”1Robert A. Gross, “Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy” in Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History, edited by Lawrence J. Friedman and Mark D. McGarvie (New York: Cambridge, 2002), 37 This is what philanthropy means in the modern world: private wealth used for public good. The ‘public good’ that the creators of the Foundling Hospital had in mind, though, wasn’t just the good of the abandoned children they cared for. They believed that the children could be molded into model citizens – “useful hands” and “good and faithful servants”2Robert A. Gross, “Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy,” 37 – who would work for the expansion of English power. Of course, this meant that those children would be encouraged to support the interests of their benefactors, who held power, privilege, and prestige.

I bring this up because Maeve Strathy at What Gives? – a blog I really quite like – recently applauded a little linguistic trick that I find… disturbing:

On Monday, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Evelyne Guindon, CEO of Cuso International. I was recording a podcast for Blakely and Evelyne was my interviewee this time around. (Stay tuned for the podcast, by the way!)

Evelyne said something that really resonated with me. She referred to the beneficiaries of their work as “assets”.


I absolutely loved that.

I understand why Strathy loves this. We in the nonprofit sector, especially those of us who are fundraisers and communicators, love coming at ideas from new angles. And one of our favorite things to do is change the way we use language: it’s not a nonprofit, it’s for impact; it’s not charity, it’s philanthropy; we don’t inform, we involve; they aren’t a donor, they’re an investor! Sometimes, that helps us think and behave a different way. And, of course, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, saying “they’re not a beneficiary, they’re an asset” is supposed to help us think that this isn’t someone we’re helping, she’s someone who can contribute to society!

The problem is that assets aren’t living, breathing people with hopes and aspirations. They’re things (or people, or qualities) that are useful and valuable and, usually, owned. They serve a purpose. They exist to serve a purpose. They exist to serve a purpose for the person who controls them.

And so the young woman in Strathy’s example “isn’t the beneficiary of donor support; she is an asset that’s been tapped into through donor support. It’s like she’s a natural resource that just hadn’t been discovered yet.”

She is, in other words, a thing that can be put to use: a vein of ore, an oil reservoir, a forest that can be chopped down. She can be put to use. And the question we need to ask is to whose use she can be put. Is she being being empowered for her own good? Or is she being made into a good citizen of global market capitalism?

We also need to admit that there’s nothing wrong with being a beneficiary. There’s nothing wrong with needing or receiving help. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with helping someone. Helping is a good thing. Being helped is a good thing. Helping each other is a good thing.

Update: Strathy posted a follow-up.

Footnotes   [ + ]


People I Read: Nicole Havelka

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is Nicole Havelka at Defy the Trend (who, I should point out, I know from Chicago Theological Seminary).

Rev. Havelka is a deeply creative minister; consultant with the Center for Progressive Renewal; Minister for Networking, Resourcing, and Creativity with the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ; and Curator for Youth and Young Adult Ministries with the national setting of the United Church of Christ. Defy the Trend covers a lot of topics, but the ideas that I see Rev. Halvelka return to most often are social justice, faith formation, and – maybe most importantly – the role of social justice in faith formation.

Here are two paragraphs from a single post that speak to this theme:

Those who profess to follow Jesus must recognize that God speaks to us through the lens of time; always calling us to greater love of ourselves, our neighbors, even those we perceive to be enemies. We are called to live this first in our homes and our daily lives. This practice will likely inspire greater and greater integration of faith into life. Integrated faith lives means that people will feel compelled to do something about racial injustice.

Family ministry can and will change the world. One Family at A Time. Maybe it will even prevent the racial violence that tore Michael Brown’s family apart.

Faith formation is about the integration of faith in Christ into our daily lives. That includes – at its very core – diakonia: the work of justice and righteousness that finds its clearest expression in serving the poor and oppressed. Rev. Havelka and Defy the Trend provide a vision of the church as a community that moves beyond the comfortable familiarity of our brokenness into the unfamiliar places where we can do what matters.


He Will Be Our Brother

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on September 25, 2016. The scriptures for this sermon are Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

There’s a word in Albanian: Besa. It means something like ‘faithfulness’ or ‘honor’ or ‘keeping a promise’. But for centuries, it’s been lived our through hospitality.

It was lived out this way during World War II, when Albania – a little country on the Adriatic Sea and just northwest of Greece – was the only country in Europe to end the war with more Jewish people than it started with… despite being occupied first by fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany.

It was lived out during the Kosovo war in the mid-90s, when Albania – a little country with a population of about 2.7 million – accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from Kosovo.

It was lived out before that when the rule was that there was an extra bed made-up in every house in case a guest arrived. It was lived out when the rule was that homeowners had to accept any guest who showed up.

It was lived out when someone wanted to build a hotel and the town turned out to protest. “Why build a hotel,” the people asked, “when a person can knock on any door and have a place to stay? What kind of people do you think we are that strangers would need a hotel?”

“Before the house belongs to the owner,” the saying goes, “it first belongs to God and the guest.”

I’m not trying to romanticize this idea. Besa was never perfect. There are hotels in Albania. But I like the image. The United Church of Christ is supposed to be a place of extravagant welcome, and I think that besa might look something like that.

And that extravagant welcome is what’s missing in today’s gospel reading.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day,” says Jesus, “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

I’m a professional fundraiser. And in my office at home I have a file box filled with mailings that I get from nonprofit organizations. A lot of fundraisers have these. They’re where we go when we need to write an appeal or a thank you note or a newsletter article and we need inspiration. Good writers borrow, as they say; great writers steal outright.

And if you’re like me and get a lot of mailings from a lot of nonprofits, then you’ve seen a thousand pictures of Lazarus. You’ve heard a thousand stories about Lazarus. You’ve read statements from Lazarus himself: I’m covered in sores, I long to satisfy my hunger with what falls from your table… for just the cost of a small coffee you can change my life.

He’s in the mail. He’s on the news. He’s on your Facebook feed.

All of us can look out at our gates and see Lazarus there.

And the point that Jesus is making with this parable shouldn’t surprise us: when we see Lazarus, we have to do something. As author, filmmaker, rapper, and professor MK Asante puts it: “When you make an observation, you have an obligation.”

And there are consequences for not doing something.

Because when Lazarus dies, he goes to be with Abraham. And when the rich man dies, he goes… somewhere else.

And that leads to a moment that’s a problem for me.

From that other place, the rich man looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus. He calls out to Abraham, begging for mercy, “Send Lazarus,” he says, “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony.”

And Abraham says, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

Now, I get what Abraham’s saying here. I get the revenge fantasy afterlife.

I get saying to this rich man, “You spent your whole life in purple and fine linen acting as though your front gate was an impenetrable barrier. You couldn’t be bothered to notice Lazarus. And now the shoe’s on the other foot and you’re getting exactly what you deserve.”

I get it. I just don’t believe it. I believe that the gate has been opened. I believe that the chasm has been filled. I believe that when we cry out for help, Jesus answers with compassion. But I get why Abraham says this.

Because the biggest chasm there is is the one between people who live in comfort – dressing in purple and fine linen and eating sumptuously every day – and the people who live in agony. And it’s a chasm that we dig every day.

“Those who want to be rich,” writes the author of Timothy, “fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

My desire for wealth… leads me into temptation. My desire for stuff… plunges me into ruin and destruction. My love for money… pierces me with many pains.

Because when I love money, I will do terrible things to get it. And when I want to protect my stuff, I will put up locked gates and dig great chasms. I will blame the poor for their poverty. I will say that charity is dangerous.

I will say that five-year old Omran Daqneesh, born into war, bloody and dust-covered, sitting quietly in an ambulance after being pulled out of the rubble that’s where his family’s home once stood shouldn’t be welcomed into my neighborhood because bad elements might tag along for the ride. After all, if I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you that just three would kill you, would you take a handful?

And that’s not who I want to be. That’s not the world I want to live in.

I don’t believe in the revenge fantasy afterlife. And I don’t think Jesus believes in the revenge fantasy afterlife. But I think this parable is true.

I think this parable is true because when we love money we create a world. We put up locked gates and we dig great chasms. And the thing about gates and chasms is that they work both ways. Locks that keep Lazarus out can keep me in. A chasm that he cannot cross, I cannot cross. I can’t build a world where lives are separated from one another without being separated from the giver of life.

I cannot serve both mammon and God.

And what Jesus tells us time and time again is that we can serve God; we can live in a world without gates and chasms, without purple and fine linen and sumptuous feasting on one side and Lazarus on the other. We can live – not quaint, biological, little-l live, but big, abundant, eternal, amazing, capital-L Live – in the Kingdom of God. And we can do that right now.

We can do that by giving up our hopes in the uncertainty of riches and putting our hope in the God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. We can do that by doing good. We can do that by being rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.

I know we can do this because Jesus says we can do it. And I know we can do it because, while someone did make the Skittles comment last week, someone also said this: “Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to my home? We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”

I know we can do it because the person who wrote that wasn’t a politician, or a world leader, or a preacher. The person who wrote that was a six-year-old boy.

He saw someone in need and responded the way that the rich man should have responded to Lazarus.

He saw someone in need and responded the way that Abraham should have responded to the rich man.

He saw someone in need and responded the way that I believe – with all of my heart and all of my soul and all of my strength and all of my mind – that Jesus responds to us.

He responded with besa. He responded with grace. He responded with the gospel.

“Go get him and bring him to my home. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”

Pin It on Pinterest