In Start with Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action, Simon Sinek argues that there are only two ways to influence human behaviour: manipulation or inspiration. Manipulation doesn’t have to be viewed negatively. A business can manipulate behaviour by dropping prices, offering incentives, running promotions, etc. Such manipulation works, but it costs. After a while customers expect the discount, or wait for the next promotion. It doesn’t build a loyal customer base. Over time, such strategies become too expensive to sustain. Customers only return for what they can get, rather than a commitment to the business or its products. Manipulation strategies have become the norm in many organisations. But there is another way.
Some are born leaders—others need to learn. The good news is that those of us who need to learn, can! And the big thing we need to learn is the power of WHY.
Some leaders inspire rather than manipulate. They operate by a process that Sinek calls the golden circle. This approach works from the inside out. Instead of focusing on what or how, they begin with why. Many people and organisations can explain what they do and how they do things, but they struggle to clearly articulate why they do what they do or why they do it how they do it. Why has to do with purpose, reason, and cause. Why exposes our motivations and beliefs, and these are the things that inspire.
For the golden circle to work there must be clarity about the why. Once we can clearly articulate the why, we can then work out the how. How embodies the values and principles that flow from the why. And the what is the results that flow from the why and the how. When the golden circle is in balance, then the organisation or business or individual is seen as authentic and real. This isn’t easy to achieve and it requires us to continually go back to the why and work outward from there, rather than manipulating people with what.
In turn, this builds trust in customers and clients. Such trust is more than a rational experience—it’s a feeling we have when we believe the organisation or leader is behaving with integrity (whether they are successful or not). This feeling of trust inspires people to action.
Why types tend to be the visionaries and optimists who imagine what the world can become. How types are the realists and practitioners who focus on getting things done. Why types need how types, and vice-versa. Truly inspirational organisations display a healthy partnership between the two. A why without a how can be little more than unstructured passion and destined for failure.
Over time it’s easy to become focused on the what and how and forget the why. We become accomplished at what we do, and know how to do things intuitively, but we can lose sight of why we do them in the first place. We need to continually return to the why—the compass that sets our direction and motivates us to action.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I agree with the basic thesis and the shape of the golden circle. We should proceed from the why to the how to the what. Being clear about why we do what we do, and why we do it how we do it, is the key to acting with integrity and authenticity. This is what will lead others to trust us. This is what will inspire others to follow.
My problem with the book lies in its length and the choice of illustrations throughout. Sinek takes a whole book to make some very simple and fundamental points. It could have easily been argued in a pithy article of 10 to 20 pages. He colours the book with examples of organisations like Apple and Harley Davidson. While I’ve been a fan of Apple since 1987 and Harley Davidson for even longer, such iconic companies don’t exactly represent the typical organisation or individual. I’d love the same arguments to be made with reference to more ‘average’ people or businesses.
I appreciated the contrast between manipulation and inspiration. As a pastor and Christian leader, my desire is to inspire people to follow Jesus. I don’t want to manipulate people’s behaviour with sticks and carrots, but to inspire people with the gospel of Jesus and the grace-filled word of God.
Asking why I do what I do, is something I’d be wise to do often. It’s so easy to fall into ruts and patterns; to perpetuate the same old same old; to do things because this is just what we do, or because it’s what we’ve always done. Why offers the energy to initiate personal and organisational change. We can critique what we do or tinker with how we do things, but the real benefits are found in regularly reviewing why. I hope to be able to do this at a personal level and to lead review at an organisational level in the context of my leadership.
As a Christian, I find the why comes not from my passions and priorities, but ultimately in following God’s revealed will. The author of life offers meaning and purpose to life and this shapes what I do and how I go about it. My challenge is to anchor what I do in the word of God’s grace. It’s to teach and model the why, as well as the how and the what.