Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Simon Sinek has a simple but powerful model for inspirational leadership -- starting with a golden circle and the question "Why?" Using examples from Apple to Martin Luther King, Sinek demonstrates the biologically-backed idea that "people don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it."

By Simon Sinek


How do you explain when things don't go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? 

For example: Why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, after year, they're more innovative than all their competition. And yet, they're just a computer company. They're just like everyone else. They have the same access to the same talent, the same agencies, the same consultants, the same media. Then why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is it that Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement? He wasn't the only man who suffered in pre-civil rights America, and he certainly wasn't the only great orator of the day. Why him? And why is it that the Wright brothers were able to figure out controlled, powered man flight when there were certainly other teams who were better qualified, better funded -- and they didn't achieve powered man flight, and the Wright brothers beat them to it. 

There's something else at play here.

About three and a half years ago, I made a discovery. And this discovery profoundly changed my view on how I thought the world worked, and it even profoundly changed the way in which I operate in it. As it turns out, there's a pattern. As it turns out, all the great inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it's Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers, they all think, act and communicate the exact same way. And it's the complete opposite to everyone else. All I did was codify it, and it's probably the world's simplest idea. I call it the golden circle.

Why? How? What? 

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This little idea explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others aren't. Let me define the terms really quickly:

Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. 

Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. 

But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by "why" I don't mean "to make a profit." That's a result. It's always a result. By "why," I mean: What's your purpose? What's your cause? What's your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? As a result, the way we think, we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in, it's obvious. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations -- regardless of their size, regardless of their industry -- all think, act and communicate from the inside out.

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Let me give you an example. I use Apple because they're easy to understand and everybody gets it. If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this:

"We make great computers. They're beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?" 

"Meh."

That's how most of us communicate. That's how most marketing and sales are done, that's how we communicate interpersonally. We say what we do, we say how we're different or better and we expect some sort of a behavior -- a purchase, a vote, something like that. 

But it's uninspiring.

Here's how Apple actually communicates: 

"Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?" 

Totally different, right? You're ready to buy a computer from me. I just reversed the order of the information. 

What it proves to us is that people don't buy what you do; people buy why you do it.

This explains why every single person in this room is perfectly comfortable buying a computer from Apple. But we're also perfectly comfortable buying an MP3 player from Apple, or a phone from Apple, or a DVR from Apple. As I said before, Apple's just a computer company. Nothing distinguishes them structurally from any of their competitors. Dell came out with MP3 players and PDAs, and they make great quality products, and they can make perfectly well-designed products -- but nobody bought one. People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe

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Here's the best part: None of what I'm telling you is my opinion. It's all grounded in the tenets of biology. Not psychology, biology. If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle. Our newest brain, our neocortex, corresponds with the "what" level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language. The middle sections make up our limbic brains, and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It's also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, and it has no capacity for language.

In other words, when we communicate from the outside in, yes, people can understand vast amounts of complicated information like features and benefits and facts and figures. It just doesn't drive behavior. When we can communicate from the inside out, we're talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior, and then we allow people to rationalise it with the tangible things we say and do. This is where gut decisions come from. Sometimes you can give somebody all the facts and figures, and they say, "I know what all the facts and details say, but it just doesn't feel right." Why would we use that verb, it doesn't "feel" right? Because the part of the brain that controls decision-making doesn't control language.

Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us. Whether they’re individuals or organisations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to.

But if you don't know why you do what you do, and people respond to why you do what you do, then how will you ever get people to vote for you, or buy something from you, or, more importantly, be loyal and want to be a part of what it is that you do. The goal is not just to sell to people who need what you have; the goal is to sell to people who believe what you believe. The goal is not just to hire people who need a job; it's to hire people who believe what you believe. I always say that, you know, if you hire people just because they can do a job, they'll work for your money, but if they believe what you believe, they'll work for you with blood and sweat and tears. 

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But why is it important to attract those who believe what you believe? Something called the law of diffusion of innovation:

The first 2.5% of our population are our innovators. The next 13.5% of our population are our early adopters. The next 34% are your early majority, your late majority and your laggards. 

We all sit at various places at various times on this scale, but what the law of diffusion of innovation tells us is that if you want mass-market success or mass-market acceptance of an idea, you cannot have it until you achieve the tipping point between 15 and 18 percent market penetration, and then the system tips. 

The problem is: How do you find the ones that get it before doing business versus the ones who don't get it? So this little gap that you have to close, as Geoffrey Moore calls it, "Crossing the Chasm" -- because, you see, the early majority will not try something until someone else has tried it first. And the innovators and the early adopters, they're comfortable making those gut decisions. They're more comfortable making those intuitive decisions that are driven by what they believe about the world and not just what product is available. These are the people who stood in line for six hours to buy an iPhone when they first came out, when you could have bought one off the shelf the next week. And, by the way, they didn't do it because the technology was so great; they did it for themselves. It's because they wanted to be first. The reason that person bought the iPhone in the first six hours, stood in line for six hours, was because of what they believed about the world, and how they wanted everybody to see them: they were first. 

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So let me give you a famous example, a famous failure and a famous success of the law of diffusion of innovation. First, the famous failure. Look at TiVo. From the time TiVo came out about eight or nine years ago to this current day, they are the single highest-quality product on the market, hands down, there is no dispute. They were extremely well-funded. Market conditions were fantastic. I mean, we use TiVo as verb. I TiVo stuff on my piece-of-junk Time Warner DVR all the time.

But TiVo's a commercial failure. 

They've never made money. And when they went IPO, their stock was at about 30 or 40 dollars and then plummeted, and it's never traded above 10. 

Because you see, when TiVo launched their product, they told us all what they had. They said, "We have a product that pauses live TV, skips commercials, rewinds live TV and memorizes your viewing habits without you even asking." And the cynical majority said, "We don't believe you. We don't need it. We don't like it. You're scaring us."

What if they had said, "If you're the kind of person who likes to have total control over every aspect of your life, boy, do we have a product for you. It pauses live TV, skips commercials, memorises your viewing habits, etc., etc." People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it, and what you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe.

Now let me give you a successful example of the law of diffusion of innovation:

In the summer of 1963, 250,000 people showed up on the mall in Washington to hear Dr. King speak. They sent out no invitations, and there was no website to check the date. How do you do that? Well, Dr. King wasn't the only man in America who was a great orator. He wasn't the only man in America who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. But he had a gift. He didn't go around telling people what needed to change in America. He went around and told people what he believed. 

"I believe, I believe, I believe," he told people. 

And people who believed what he believed took his cause, and they made it their own, and they told people. And some of those people created structures to get the word out to even more people. And lo and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day at the right time to hear him speak.

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How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves. It's what they believed about America that got them to travel in a bus for eight hours to stand in the sun in Washington in the middle of August. It's what they believed, and it wasn't about black versus white: 25% of the audience was white..

Listen to politicians now, with their comprehensive 12-point plans. They're not inspiring anybody. Because there are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us. Whether they're individuals or organisations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. 

And it's those who start with "why" that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.


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Fascinated by the leaders who make impact in the world, companies and politicians with the capacity to inspire, Simon Sinek has discovered some remarkable patterns in how they think, act and communicate. He wrote Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action to explore his idea of the Golden Circle, what he calls "a naturally occurring pattern, grounded in the biology of human decision making, that explains why we are inspired by some people, leaders, messages and organizations over others." His newest work explores "circles of safety," exploring how to enhance feelings of trust and confidence in making bold decisions. It's the subject of his latest book, Leaders Eat Last.


This is an extract from a 2009 talk delivered by Simon Sinek entitled "How Great Leaders Inspire Action" delivered at TEDxPuget Sound, published under a Creative Commons Attribution License