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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. Penguin, 2009, 256 pp.

Steve Jobs, addressing the 2005 Stanford University commencement, mentioned that when he was 17 he read a quote that went something like, “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” If this idea intrigues you, then you need to read Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. A trained ethnographer and experienced marketer, Sinek has been writing and speaking on “the Power of WHY” since 2008. His stated goal is to help people feel fulfilled and inspired by their work. Using references to popular culture, Sinek explains the basis of the relationship linking inspirational leaders and their followers and how that relationship develops.

According to Sinek, inspired leadership starts with why. He introduces the concept of the Golden Circle, a trio of concentric circles he uses to describe the behavior of individuals and organizations. The innermost circle represents why, the middle circle represents how, and the outer circle represents what. If asked about our jobs, for example, most of us start with the outer circle, using what to describe them. Then we describe how we do them and finally why we do them. As Sinek emphasizes, those exceptional individuals and organizations who consistently provide inspiring leadership, instead start with why, the fuzziest and most challenging concept to define and communicate. It is always easier to explain what we do rather than why we do it. Why, springing from the root of our authentic selves, provides the motivation for what we do. Successful leaders, whose Golden Circles are in balance, are clearly and consistently able to communicate their why, thus attracting like-minded loyal followers.

The principles of the Golden Circle are rooted in biology. The outer ring, what, corresponds to the brain’s neocortex, which controls rational thought and language. The inner two circles, why and how, corresponding to the limbic brain, generate feelings and behavior. The neocortex—the bridge to the outside world—generates the language that explains our feelings and decisions. It is often difficult to explain our “gut” feelings since decisions and the words to explain those decisions spring from different portions of the brain. Great leaders, however, have the ability to speak and act from their why.

Successful products are also based upon why. They provide customers with a sense of identity and purpose. Sinek frequently uses Apple to explain his ideas about successful leaders and products. “Apple, unlike its competitors, has defined itself by WHY it does things, not WHAT it does. It is not a computer company, but a company that challenges the status quo and offers individuals simpler alternatives” (pp. 45–46). In Sinek’s terms, customers do not buy what you do but rather why you do it. He explains how the success of new products is based upon the law of diffusion, the bell curve borrowed from sociologists to describe the behavior of consumers who are the first to buy new items and use new technologies. Successful products must first appeal to the innovators and early adopters before the majority of consumers are willing to purchase them. The innovators and early adopters, comprising the first 16 percent on the left side of the bell curve, rely upon their intuition—their gut, or the inner part of the Golden Circle. They are willing to take risks with new products or services because the why of the producer matches their own. Loyal consumer relationships, like those demonstrated by Apple customers, develop because the whys of producer and consumer are in sync.

The Celery Test is a metaphor Sinek created to convey the importance of saying and doing only what you truly believe; in other words, living according to your why. If you truly believe in healthy eating, can the casual observer determine your food beliefs from the contents of your grocery cart? Are you buying celery and whole grains, or are you buying frozen pizza and twice-cooked potato chips? If good nutrition consistently guides your trips to the grocery store, your food shopping experiences will be more efficient, and you will probably attract like-minded shoppers anxious to share their healthy eating tips with you. Likewise, if your work behavior consistently models your core beliefs about integrity, fairness, and hard work, your coworkers will recognize these beliefs as authentic and will be motivated to follow you if they share them.

Sinek says that people can be manipulated in various ways but inspired through only one. Manipulation results in short-term solutions and relationships; loyalty and lasting relationships are built upon inspiration, which requires a meeting of the minds between leaders and followers on why they do what they do. Sinek makes a distinction between leaders and those who lead. Leaders hold the highest rank in an organization, but those who lead attract willing followers. Those who follow do so because they believe their leaders are working for a purpose higher than their own personal benefit. If the organization’s Golden Circle is in balance, it will attract those who hold similar beliefs. If your Golden Circle is in balance, people will be inspired to join your team. Discovering and living your why is the only path to authentic leadership. Rather than competing with others, compete only with yourself, Sinek advises. Come to work with the goal of making today better than yesterday and leaving the organization in a better state than you found it.

Sinek’s ideas are particularly relevant for the Air Force today. “All leaders must have two things: they must have a vision of the world that does not exist and they must have the ability to communicate it” (p. 227). Air Force leaders need to propose innovative solutions to the challenges of meeting changing missions and reduced resources and must be capable of persuading others to follow them into the unknown. Great leaders, living and working according to their why, are capable of giving us things we have neither envisioned nor requested—for example, President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon within a decade, Southwest Airlines, and iPads!

Simon Sinek has synthesized many familiar ideas into a philosophy, the Power of WHY,” we may all use to reinvigorate the leader in each of us. For Air Force members, this book will provide a re-bluing as effective as an enlistment or promotion ceremony for giving us a renewed sense of purpose.

Karen W. Currie, PhD

Defense Analyst, Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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