Leadership Starts with Why – A Review of Simon Sinek’s #StartWithWhy

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Simon Sinek believes that the reason many of us do not get very far when we approach a new problem, whether it be going on a diet, starting a new business or introducing technology in the classroom, is because we have got our priorities all wrong. Too often the focus of our attention is on what we need to do. This could be to lose weight, ship a new product or get devices into every classroom. All too often such actions fail to last because although we think we know what we need to do, our reason for doing so is either missing or unclear. As Sinek points out,

You can get someone to buy a gym membership with an aspirational message, but to get them to go three days a week requires a bit of inspiration

Although fear and manipulation may get the job done once or twice, for long lasting change and innovation you need trust, loyalty and inspiration. This is what Sinek means by the title of his book, Start With Why.

At the heart of Sinek’s argument is the concept of the golden circle. Where most people begin with the what, dictating how we do things and hopefully why we do it. The golden circle is about working in reverse, from the inside out. Everything starts with why.

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The catch is that a why is not something that you simply invent, rather it is something discovered through deep reflection. Our why is the thing that gets us up in the morning, what we actually care about, what cause we are a part of. Once that is worked out, the focus then is to bring all our actions back to this. As Sinek states:

It is not just WHAT or HOW you do things that matters; what matters more is that WHAT and HOW you do things is consistent with your WHY. (Page 186)

Sinek supports his idea about the golden circle with evidence from biology. In the brain are two sections which relate to action and decision making: the neocortex and the limbic brain. The neocortex is analytical and responsible for language, whereas the limbic brain is responsible for feelings, such as trust and loyalty. The catch is the limbic brain has no capacity for language, it communicates instead through the neocortex via gut feelings and intuition. Those decisions which we think are right, but have no rationale way of explaining it. As Sinek explains:

Our limbic brains are smart and often know the right thing to do. It is our inability to verbalize the reasons that may cause us to doubt ourselves or trust the empirical evidence when our gut tells us not to. (Page 63)

Although we may think that with the right evidence all decisions can be rationally decided upon,  at the end of the day, there are some choices which are irrational and made emotionally. It is for this reason that it is important, in any circumstance, to start with why. This not only provides clarity of understanding, but the confidence to move forward without fear and doubt.

The role of the leader then is to create the right environment. One where people are trusted and inspired to drive great ideas. The problem, such things can be difficult without an agreed purpose formed collaboratively. This why, as Sinek points out, is not something that is simply decided in an organisation by those with hierarchical power, instead it is led and supported in an organic manner. As he explains:

Trust comes from being a part of a culture or organization with a common set of values and beliefs. Trust is maintained when the values and beliefs are actively managed. (Page 121)

This comes back to the distinction between those who lead compared to those who manipulate. To lead then is to inspire through charisma and support, not to manipulate through fear and control.

What is weird about Starting With Why is that, like Carol Dweck’s Mindsets, once known it seems so obvious. The challenge with why is to maintain focus, for it is one thing to start with why once, but to maintain the focus day after day, year after year, that is the real challenges.

For a great introduction into Simon Sinek’s ideas, watch his great TED Talk:

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Leadership Starts with Why – A Review of Simon Sinek’s #StartWithWhy by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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