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Dayo F Osibamowo
22 min read

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Simon Sinek (2009)

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However, if your WHYs and their WHY correspond, then they will see your products and services as tangible ways to prove what they believe. When WHY, HOW, and WHAT are in balance, authenticity is achieved and the buyer feels fulfilled. When they are out of balance, stress or uncertainty exists. When that happens, the decisions we make will also be out of balance. Without WHY, the buyer is easily motivated by aspiration or fear.

People are people and the biology of decision-making is the same no matter whether it is a personal decision or a business decision.

Here’s the alternative: “You know what I love about our company? Every single one of us comes to work every day to do something we love. We get to inspire people to do the things that inspire them. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. In fact, the fun part is trying to figure out all the different ways we can do that. It really is amazing. The best part is, it is also good for business. We do really well. We have beautiful offices, you should stop by sometime to see. We work with some of the biggest companies. I’m sure you’ve seen our ads. We’re actually doing pretty well.”

I get to meet lots of famous people and I get to be on TV all the time, which is fun, because I’m good-looking. I’m very lucky that I’m doing something that I love, I’ve actually been able to do pretty well because of it.”

Let’s send Brad out again, but this time he’s going to start with WHY. “You know what I love about my life?” he starts this time. “I get to wake up every day to do something I love. I get to inspire people to do the things that inspire them. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. In fact, the best part is trying to figure out all the different ways I can do that. It really is amazing. And believe it or not, I’ve actually been able to make a lot of money from it. I bought a big house and a nice car. I get to meet lots of famous people and I get to be on TV all the time, which is fun, because I’m good-looking. I’m very lucky that I’m doing something that I love, I’ve actually been able to do pretty well because of it.”

Ask the most successful entrepreneurs and leaders what their secret is and invariably they all say the same thing: “I trust my gut.” The times things went wrong, they will tell you, “I listened to what others were telling me, even though it didn’t feel right. I should have trusted my gut.” It’s a good strategy, except it’s not scalable. The gut decision can

The ability to put a WHY into words provides the emotional context for decisions. It offers greater confidence than “I think it’s right.” It’s more scalable than “I feel it’s right.” When you can verbalize the feeling that drove the gut decision, if you can clearly state your WHY, you’ll provide a clear context for those around you to understand why that decision was made.

The goal of business should not be to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have. It should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe. When we are selective about doing business only with those who believe in our WHY, trust emerges.

Trust is a feeling, not a rational experience. We trust some people and companies even when things go wrong, and we don’t trust others even though everything might have gone exactly as it should have. A completed checklist does not guarantee trust. Trust begins to emerge when we have a sense that another person or organization is driven by things other than their own self-gain.

You have to earn trust by communicating and demonstrating that you share the same values and beliefs. You have to talk about your WHY and prove it with WHAT you do. Again, a WHY is just a belief, HOWs are the actions we take to realize that belief, and WHATs are the results of those actions. When all three are in balance, trust is built and value is perceived.

Leading is not the same as being the leader. Being the leader means you hold the highest rank, either by earning it, good fortune or navigating internal politics. Leading, however, means that others willingly follow you—not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to.

The reason the human race has been so successful is not because we’re the strongest animals—far from it. Size and might alone do not guarantee success. We’ve succeeded as a species because of our ability to form cultures. Cultures are groups of people who come together around a common set of values and beliefs. When we share values and beliefs with others, we form trust. Trust of others allows us to rely on others to help protect our children and ensure our personal survival.

We do better in cultures in which we are good fits. We do better in places that reflect our own values and beliefs. Just as the goal is not to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have, but to do business with people who believe what you believe, so too is it beneficial to live and work in a place where you will naturally thrive because your values and beliefs align with the values and beliefs of that culture.

When you fill an organization with good fits, those who believe what you believe, success just happens.

When employees belong, they will guarantee your success. And they won’t be working hard and looking for innovative solutions for you, they will be doing it for themselves. What all great leaders have in common is the ability to find good fits to join their organizations—those who believe what they believe.

As Herb Kelleher famously said, “You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.” This is all fine and good; the problem is, which attitude? What if their attitude is not one that fits your culture?

The goal is to hire those who are passionate for your WHY, your purpose, cause or belief, and who have the attitude that fits your culture. Once that is established, only then should their skill set and experience be evaluated.

Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them. People are either motivated or they are not. Unless you give motivated people something to believe in, something bigger than their job to work toward, they will motivate themselves to find a new job and you’ll be stuck with whoever’s left.

Companies with a strong sense of WHY are able to inspire their employees. Those employees are more productive and innovative, and the feeling they bring to work attracts other people eager to work there as well. It’s not such a stretch to see why the companies that we love to do business with are also the best employers. When people inside the company know WHY they come to work, people outside the company are vastly more likely to understand WHY the company is special. In these organizations, from the management on down, no one sees themselves as any more or any less than anyone else. They all need each other.

However, pulling together a team of like-minded people and giving them a cause to pursue ensures a greater sense of teamwork and camaraderie.

Average companies give their people something to work on. In contrast, the most innovative organizations give their people something to work toward. The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen. It is the people inside the company, those on the front lines, who are best qualified to find new ways of doing things.

Companies that study their competitors in hopes of adding the features and benefits that will make their products “better” are only working to entrench the company in WHAT it does. Companies with a clear sense of WHY tend to ignore their competition, whereas those with a fuzzy sense of WHY are obsessed with what others are doing. The ability of a company to innovate is not just useful for developing new ideas, it is invaluable for navigating struggle. When people come to work with a higher sense of purpose, they find it easier to weather hard times or even to find opportunity in those hard times. People who come to work with a clear sense of WHY are less prone to giving up after a few failures because they understand the higher cause. Thomas Edison, a man definitely driven by a higher cause, said, “I didn’t find a way to make a lightbulb, I found a thousand ways how not to make one.”

If the people aren’t looking out for the community, then the benefits of a community erode.

Historically, trust has played a bigger role in advancing companies and societies than skill set alone. Like the couple leaving their children while they go out on a date for the evening, groups from within a society would go off with confidence, knowing that their homes and families would be safe upon their return. If there were no trust, then no one would take risks. No risks would mean no exploration, no experimentation and no advancement of the society as a whole. That’s a remarkable concept: only when individuals can trust the culture or organization will they take personal risks in order to advance that culture or organization as a whole. For no other reason than, in the end, it’s good for their own personal health and survival.

Great organizations become great because the people inside the organization feel protected. The strong sense of culture creates a sense of belonging and acts like a net. People come to work knowing that their bosses, colleagues and the organization as a whole will look out for them. This results in reciprocal behavior. Individual decisions, efforts and behaviors that support, benefit and protect the long-term interest of the organization as a whole.

It’s a subtle irony that one of the best customer service companies in the country focuses on its employees before its customers. The trust between the management and the employees, not dogma, is what produces the great customer service. It is a prerequisite, then, for someone to trust the culture in which they work to share the values and beliefs of that culture. Without it, that employee, for example, is simply a bad fit and likely to work only for self-gain without consideration for the greater good. But if those inside the organization are a good fit, the opportunity to “go the extra mile,” to explore, to invent, to innovate, to advance and, more importantly, to do so again and again and again, increases dramatically. Only with mutual trust can an organization become great.

It is the invisible trust that gives a leader the following they need to get things done.

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. If companies do not actively work to keep their Golden Circle in balance—clarity, discipline and consistency—then trust starts to break down. A company, indeed any organization, must work actively to remind everyone WHY the company exists. WHY it was founded in the first place. What it believes. They need to hold everyone in the company accountable to the values and guiding principles. It’s not enough to just write them on the wall—that’s passive. Bonuses and incentives must revolve around them. The company must serve those whom they wish to serve it.

Passion comes from feeling like you are a part of something that you believe in, something bigger than yourself.

When a journalist asked Kelleher who comes first to him, his shareholders or his employees, his response was heresy at the time (and to a large degree still is). “Well, that’s easy,” he said, “employees come first and if employees are treated right, they treat the outside world right, the outside world uses the company’s product again, and that makes the shareholders happy. That really is the way that it works and it’s not a conundrum at all.”

The fact is, none of us is immune to the effect of someone we know or feel like we trust influencing our decisions.

A trusted recommendation is powerful enough to trump facts and figures and even multimillion-dollar marketing budgets.

However you slice it, the opinions of others matter. And the opinions of those we trust matter most.

It’s the difference between a fad and an idea that changes an industry or society forever.

Each of us assigns different values to different things and our behaviors follow accordingly. This is one of the major reasons why it is nearly impossible to “convince” someone of the value of your products or ideas based on rational arguments and tangible benefits.

Even if the quality is superior, there is more to succeeding than just the product and the marketing.

The best does not always win. Like any natural law, the Law of Diffusion must be considered if mass-market acceptance is important to you. Refusal to do so will cost a lot of money and may result in a mediocre success, if not complete failure.

Don’t forget, loyalty is when people are willing to suffer some inconvenience or pay a premium to do business with you. They may even turn down a better offer from someone else—something the late majority rarely does.

The goal of business then should not be to simply sell to anyone who wants what you have—the majority—but rather to find people who believe what you believe, the left side of the bell curve. They perceive greater value in what you do and will happily pay a premium or suffer some sort of inconvenience to be a part of your cause. They are the ones who, on their own volition, will tell others about you. That 15 to 18 percent is not made up of people who are simply willing to buy the product. It is the percentage of people who share your beliefs and want to incorporate your ideas, your products and your services into their own lives as WHATs to their own WHYs. They look to WHAT you do as a tangible element that demonstrates their own purpose, cause or belief to the outside world. Their willingness to pay a premium or suffer inconvenience to use your product or service says more about them than it does about you and your products. Their ability to easily see WHY they need to incorporate your products into their lives makes this group the most loyal customers. They are also the most loyal shareholders and the most loyal employees. No matter where they sit in the spectrum, these are the people who not only love you but talk about you. Get enough of the people on the left side of the curve on your side and they encourage the rest to follow.

If you have the discipline to focus on the early adopters, the majority will come along eventually. But it must start with WHY. Simply focusing on so-called influencers is not enough.

When you start with WHY, those who believe what you believe are drawn to you for very personal reasons. It is those who share your values and beliefs, not the quality of your products, that will cause the system to tip. Your role in the process is to be crystal clear about what purpose, cause or belief you exist to champion, and to show how your products and services help advance that cause.

The part of the brain that influences our behavior and decisions does not have the capacity for language. We have trouble saying clearly, in emotional terms, why we do what we do, and offer rationalizations that, though valid and true, are not powerful enough to inspire others. So when asked why they showed up that day, people pointed to Dr. King and said simply, “Because I believe.”

Energy motivates but charisma inspires. Energy is easy to see, easy to measure and easy to copy. Charisma is hard to define, near impossible to measure and too elusive to copy.

Charisma has nothing to do with energy; it comes from a clarity of WHY. It comes from absolute conviction in an ideal bigger than oneself. Energy, in contrast, comes from a good night’s sleep or lots of caffeine. Energy can excite. But only charisma can inspire. Charisma commands loyalty. Energy does not.

Regardless of WHAT we do in our lives, our WHY—our driving purpose, cause or belief—never changes.

When a WHY is clear, those who share that belief will be drawn to it and maybe want to take part in bringing it to life.

The Golden Circle is not just a communication tool; it also provides some insight into how great organizations are organized. As we start to add dimension to the concept of The Golden Circle, it is no longer helpful to look at it as a purely two-dimensional model. If it is to provide any real value in how to build a great organization in our very three-dimensional world, The Golden Circle needs to be three-dimensional. The good news is, it is. It is, in fact, a top-down view of a cone. Turn it on its side and you can see its full value.

The cone represents a company or an organization—an inherently hierarchical and organized system. Sitting at the top of the system, representing the WHY, is a leader; in the case of a company, that’s usually the CEO (or at least we hope it is). The next level down, the HOW level, typically includes the senior executives who are inspired by the leader’s vision and know HOW to bring it to life.

HOWs are the actions we take to realize that belief and WHATs are the results of those actions.

Beneath that, at the WHAT level, is where the rubber meets the road. It is at this level that the majority of the employees sit and where all the tangible stuff actually happens.

For every great leader, for every WHY-type, there is an inspired HOW-type or group of HOW-types who take the intangible cause and build the infrastructure that can give it life. That infrastructure is what actually makes any measurable change or success possible.

The leader imagines the destination and the HOW-types find the route to get there. A destination without a route leads to meandering and inefficiency, something a great many WHY-types will experience without the help of others to ground them.

WHY-types are focused on the things most people can’t see, like the future. HOW-types are focused on things most people can see and tend to be better at building structures and processes and getting things done.

Without someone inspired by their vision and the knowledge to make it a reality, most WHY-types end up as starving visionaries, people with all the answers but never accomplishing much themselves.

Jobs had the vision, Woz had the goods. It is the partnership of a vision of the future and the talent to get it done that makes an organization great.

The vision is the public statement of the founder’s intent, WHY the company exists. It is literally the vision of a future that does not yet exist. The mission statement is a description of the route, the guiding principles—HOW the company intends to create that future. When both of those things are stated clearly, the WHY-type and the HOW-type are both certain about their roles in the partnership. Both are working together with clarity of purpose and a plan to get there. For it to work, however, it requires more than a set of skills, it requires trust.

It’s not an accident that these unions of WHY and HOW so often come from families or old friendships. A shared upbringing and life experience increases the probability of a shared set of values and beliefs.

A clear sense of WHY sets expectations.

Higher standards are hard to maintain. It requires the discipline to constantly talk about and remind everyone WHY the organization exists in the first place. It requires that everyone in the organization be held accountable to HOW you do things—to your values and guiding principles. And it takes time and effort to ensure that everything you say and do is consistent with your WHY.

As a company grows, the CEO’s job is to personify the WHY. To ooze of it. To talk about it. To preach it. To be a symbol of what the company believes. They are the intention and WHAT the company says and does is their voice. Like Martin Luther King and his social movement, the leader’s job is no longer to close all the deals; it is to inspire.

The WHY exists in the part of the brain that controls feelings and decision-making but not language. WHATs exist in the part of the brain that controls rational thought and language.

Remember the biology of The Golden Circle. The WHY exists in the part of the brain that controls feelings and decision-making but not language. WHATs exist in the part of the brain that controls rational thought and language.

Put bluntly, the struggle that so many companies have to differentiate or communicate their true value to the outside world is not a business problem, it’s a biology problem.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that America’s best days are behind her, that the American spirit has been vanquished. We’ve seen it triumph too often in our lives to stop believing in it now.”

It is not a company or organization that decides what, it symbols mean, it is the group outside the megaphone, in the chaotic marketplace, who decide. If, based on the things they see and hear, the outsiders can clearly and consistently report what an organization believes, then, and only then, can a symbol start to take on meaning.

The idea that copying WHAT or HOW things are done at high-performing organizations will inherently work for you is just not true.

It’s astounding the number of businesses I see that view an opportunity as the one that’s going to set them on a path to glory, only to have it blow up or slowly deflate over time. They see the chocolate cake and can’t resist. Starting with WHY not only helps you know which is the right advice for you to follow, but also to know which decisions will put you out of balance. You can certainly make those decisions if you need to, but don’t make too many of them, otherwise over time, no one will know what you believe.

With a WHY clearly stated in an organization, anyone within the organization can make a decision as clearly and as accurately as the founder. A WHY provides the clear filter for decision-making. Any decisions—hiring, partnerships, strategies and tactics—should all pass the Celery Test.

But if a company tries too many times to “seize market opportunities” inconsistent with their WHY over time, their WHY will go fuzzy and their ability to inspire and command loyalty will deteriorate. What companies say and do matters. A lot. It is at the WHAT level that a cause is brought to life. It is at this level that a company speaks to the outside world and it is then that we can learn what the company believes.

It is not destiny or some mystical business cycle that transforms successful companies into impersonal goliaths. It’s people.

Achievement is something you reach or attain, like a goal. It is something tangible, clearly defined and measurable. Success, in contrast, is a feeling or a state of being. “She feels successful. She is successful,” we say, using the verb.

In my vernacular, achievement comes when you pursue and attain WHAT you want. Success comes when you are clear in pursuit of WHY you want it. The former is motivated by tangible factors while the latter by something deeper in the brain, where we lack the capacity to put those feelings into words. Success comes when we wake up every day in that never-ending pursuit of WHY we do WHAT we do. Our achievements, WHAT we do, serve as the milestones to indicate we are on the right path.

Those with an ability to never lose sight of WHY, no matter how little or how much they achieve, can inspire us. Those with the ability to never lose sight of WHY and also achieve the milestones that keep everyone focused in the right direction are the great leaders.

The reason so many small businesses fail, however, is because passion alone can’t cut it. For passion to survive, it needs structure. A WHY without the HOWs, passion without structure, has a very high probability of failure. Remember the dot-com boom? Lots of passion, but not so much structure.

The single greatest challenge any organization will face is . . . success. When the company is small, the founder will rely on his gut to make all the major decisions. From marketing to product, from strategy to tactics, hiring and firing, the decisions the founder makes will, if he trusts his gut, feel right. But as the organization grows, as it becomes more successful, it becomes physically impossible for one person to make every major decision. Not only must others be trusted and relied upon to make big decisions, but those people will also start making hiring choices. And slowly but surely, as the megaphone grows, the clarity of WHY starts to dilute.

The School Bus Test is a simple metaphor. If a founder or leader of an organization were to be hit by a school bus, would the organization continue to thrive at the same pace without them at the helm?

To pass the School Bus Test, for an organization to continue to inspire and lead beyond the lifetime of its founder, the founder’s WHY must be extracted and integrated into the culture of the company. What’s more, a strong succession plan should aim to find a leader inspired by the founding cause and ready to lead it into the next generation.

Money is a perfectly legitimate measurement of goods sold or services rendered. But it is no calculation of value. Just because somebody makes a lot of money does not mean that he necessarily provides a lot of value. Likewise, just because somebody makes a little money does not necessarily mean he provides only a little value. Simply by measuring the number of goods sold or the money brought in is no indication of value. Value is a feeling, not a calculation. It is perception. One could argue that a product with more bells and whistles that sells for less is the greater value. But by whose standard?

If those outside the megaphone share your WHY and if you are able to clearly communicate that belief in everything you say and do, trust emerges and value is perceived. When that happens, loyal buyers will always rationalize the premium they pay or the inconvenience they suffer to get that feeling. To them, the sacrifice of time or money is worth it. They will try to explain that their feeling of value comes from quality or features or some other easy-to-point-to element, but it doesn’t. Those are external factors and the feeling they get comes completely from inside them.

When the person who personifies the WHY departs without clearly articulating WHY the company was founded in the first place, they leave no clear cause for their successor to lead. The new CEO will come aboard to run the company and will focus attention on the growth of WHAT with little attention to WHY. Worse, they may try to implement their own vision without considering the cause that originally inspired most people to show up in the first place. In these cases, the leader can work against the culture of the company instead of leading or building upon it. The result is diminished morale, mass exodus, poor performance and a slow and steady transition to a culture of mistrust and every-man-for-himself.

The only succession plan that will work is to find a CEO who believes in and wants to continue to lead that movement, not replace it with their own vision of the future.

Successful succession is more than selecting someone with an appropriate skill set—it’s about finding someone who is in lockstep with the original cause around which the company was founded. Great second or third CEOs don’t take the helm to implement their own vision of the future; they pick up the original banner and lead the company into the next generation. That’s why we call it succession, not replacement. There is a continuity of vision.

The good news is, it will be easy to know if a successor is carrying the right torch. Simply apply the Celery Test and see if what the company is saying and doing makes sense. Test whether WHAT they are doing effectively proves WHY they were founded. If we can’t easily assess a company’s WHY simply from looking at their products, services, marketing and public statements, then odds are high that they don’t know what it is either. If they did, so would we.

When people know WHY you do WHAT you do, they are willing to give you credit for everything that could serve as proof of WHY. When they are unclear about your WHY, WHAT you do has no context. Even though the things you do or decisions you make may be good, they won’t make sense to others without a clear understanding of WHY.

Just as Apple’s WHY developed during the rebellious 1960s and’70s, the WHY for every other individual or organization comes from the past. It is born out of the upbringing and life experience of an individual or small group.

As anyone who starts a business knows, it is a fantastic race. There is a statistic that hangs over your head—over 90 percent of all new businesses fail in the first three years. For anyone with even a bit of a competitive spirit in them, especially for someone who defines himself or herself as an entrepreneur (hands on hips, chest out, standing at a slight angle), these overwhelming odds of failure are not intimidating, they only add fuel to the fire. The foolishness of thinking that you’re a part of the small minority of those who actually will make it past three years and defy the odds is part of what makes entrepreneurs who they are, driven by passion and completely irrational.

When you compete against everyone else, no one wants to help you. But when you compete against yourself, everyone wants to help you.

We’re always comparing ourselves to others. And no one wants to help us. What if we showed up to work every day simply to be better than ourselves? What if the goal was to do better work this week than we did the week before? To make this month better than last month? For no other reason than because we want to leave the organization in a better state than we found it?

What if the next time when someone asks, “Who’s your competition?” we replied, “No idea.” What if the next time someone pushes, “Well, what makes you better than your competition?” we replied, “We’re not better than them in all cases.” And what if the next time someone asks, “Well why should I do business with you then?” we answer with confidence, “Because the work we’re doing now is better than the work we were doing six months ago. And the work we’ll be doing six months from now will be better than the work we’re doing today. Because we wake up every day with a sense of WHY we come to work. We come to work to inspire people to do the things that inspire them. Are we better than our competition? If you believe what we believe and you believe that the things we do can help you, then we’re better. If you don’t believe what we believe and you don’t believe the things we can do will help you, then we’re not better. Our goal is to find customers who believe what we believe and work together so that we can all succeed. We’re looking for people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us in pursuit of the same goal. We’re not interested in sitting across a table from each other in pursuit of a sweeter deal. And here are the things we’re doing to advance our cause . . .” And then the details of HOW and WHAT you do follow. But this time, it started with WHY.

Imagine if every organization started with WHY. Decisions would be simpler. Loyalties would be greater. Trust would be a common currency. If our leaders were diligent about starting with WHY, optimism would reign and innovation would thrive.

If an individual or organization hopes to assume the responsibility of leadership—a responsibility that is given, not taken—then they must think, act, and speak in a way that inspires people to follow. Leadership is always about people. No one leads a company. A company is a legal structure. You can run a company, you can manage an organization, but you can lead only people.

Leadership is not about power or authority. Leadership is decidedly more human. Being a leader requires one thing and one thing only: followers. A follower is someone who volunteers to go where you are going. They choose to go not because they have to, not because they were incentivized to, not because they were threatened to, but because they want to. The question is, why would anyone follow you? If an individual or organization hopes to assume the responsibility of leadership—a responsibility that is given, not taken—then they must think, act, and speak in a way that inspires people to follow. Leadership is always about people. No one leads a company. A company is a legal structure. You can run a company, you can manage an organization, but you can lead only people.

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.

Leadership requires two things: a vision of the world that does not yet exist and the ability to communicate it. The question is, where does vision come from? And this is the power of WHY. Our visions are the world we imagine, the tangible results of what the world would look like if we spent every day in pursuit of our WHY.