Do you know why your company exists? No, really, why are you in business? At first glance, it’s easy to say, “to make money” or “to ensure stakeholder profits”, but the question of WHY is really asking an entirely different question. The question gets to the heart and guts, the stuff that matters. It’s essentially asking a question of purpose or belief. Enter the mind of “Start With Why” author Simon Sinek.
Either through dumb luck or providence, I managed to find Simon’s TED Talk “Start With Why” and it changed my life. Several months prior, I broke up with my corporate job. While there, I remember sitting through mindless meetings listening to “leaders” proudly pound their chest about how we were there for the sole purpose of “making money.” The place was a boiler room, and trust was a rare commodity. The place had a surplus of platitudes adoring the walls proclaiming the virtue of “teamwork”, despite the constant fear of teammates one-upping the other or stealing each other’s sales. Looking back, it was probably the best job I have ever had because of what it taught me. It made me think deeply about what leadership is, and why so few companies do it well. It’s the question that Simon Sinek illuminates so well in “Start With Why.”
How Great Leaders Inspire Action: Introduction to the Golden Circle
Martin Luther King Jr. once proclaimed “I have a dream.” What if he had said instead, “I have a plan?” Simon Sinek ventures to say that no one would remember his speech. But strangely enough, this is exactly what we get in most companies. Companies might say “this is our strategic plan”, or “this is our plan to increase our quarterly earnings” and then expect the employees to take the helm and make magic happen. Even worse, you might get the “we are here to make money” ra-ra-ra speech.
What then, was it about MLK’s speech that makes it timeless? Why did his message take off and inspire a movement? Enter Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle.”
Sinek says that there are three levels of communication, why, how, and what. According to Sinek, these three levels correspond with how people process information in the limbic and neocortex regions of the brain. Great leaders and innovative companies all start and communicate with their WHY–starting inside the circle and working their way out– the complete opposite way most companies communicate and do business. Simply put,
“People don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it.” – Simon Sinek
Example of WHY companies include Apple and Harley Davidson, who despite providing products that other companies are perhaps qualified in their own right to provide, fail to do so at the level that these companies do. Apple, for instance, isn’t so much about gizmos and gadgets as it is about a belief about the world and the role of technology in disrupting the status-quo. Why would someone get a Corporate logo such as Harley Davidson permanently tattooed on their body? Is it simply because they love motorcycles? Harley is a symbol of American freedom, and the fact that Harley Davidson makes motorcycles (their what) simply acts to reinforce this belief. Starting with WHY provides a clear vision that inspires, and also helps us connect to our tribes in the process.
Applying WHY at work
How do we create an environment for people where personal fulfillment is the norm and not the exception? How can leaders go about inspiring their people to feel a part of something bigger than themselves? Sinek says,
“There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.”
Is your company using carrots and sticks, or does your company provide an inspiring vision for the future that keeps employees up at night dreaming about ways to bring that vision to life? Starting with why requires clarity of vision and those who are willing to provide leadership. Are employees working at a company simply for the paycheck, OR are they bringing their full person to work–blood, sweat, and tears? Sinek explores the question and provides a road map. It is up to leaders and organizations to answer it by focusing on what matters, by starting with WHY.