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. Sinek’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.

Conclusion

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: n 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.