Today, I spoke to Simon Sinek, who is the author of Start With WHY, the creator of The Golden Circle, and a popular speaker. In this interview, Simon talks about what the WHY is, why companies need to have a sense of purpose, examples of companies and individuals that have a WHY, advice on finding your WHY and much more.
In your book, you make a case for the existence of this thing you call the WHY. What is a WHY?
About four years ago I made this discovery that all the great and inspiring leaders and organizations think, act and communicate the exact same way, and it’s the complete opposite to everyone else. From leaders like Martin Luther King to companies like Apple, regardless of their size or industry, they all start with Why.
“Every single organization–or career, for that matter–exists on three levels: WHAT you do, HOW you do it and WHY you do it.”
By WHY I don’t mean to make money, that’s always a result. By WHY, I mean what’s your purpose, cause or belief? Why does your company exist? Why did you get out of bed this morning? And why should anyone care?
Starting with Why means reversing the way we usually do things. Most organizations only focus on WHAT they do and HOW they do it – tactics and strategies – and they aren’t even aware that this thing called the WHY exists. Focusing on only two pieces of a three piece puzzle leaves an organization, or a career, inherently out of balance. Being out of balance, only operating on two of the three pieces, shows up in different ways – increased stress, loss of passion, obsession with what your competition is doing, being forced to play the price game, trouble differentiating. These are all signs that the WHY is missing. Those who lead their industries are different.
Great, inspiring leaders and organizations, regardless of size or industry, all know WHY they do what they do. They all know WHY their organizations exist in terms that go beyond products or strategies or tactics. It is this clear sense of WHY that inspires them and those around them. It is what drives loyalty. And it is what drives their success over and over and over.
In business, any of the companies that we love to do business with all understand their WHY. That’s the reason we love, not just like, doing business with them. It’s the WHY that commands the loyalty. Companies like Apple, Southwest Airlines, Harley-Davidson, Patagonia and others. All their competitors have equal and open access to the same media, resources, talent, consultants and agencies, but these few companies seem to have an unbalanced amount of success and influence. They are also more profitable and more innovative. Not just because they are good at WHAT they do or HOW they do it, but because they also know WHY. They are operating on all three levels – they are in balance.
You can see it in great leaders too, like Martin Luther King or Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy. Martin Luther King, for example, wasn’t the only great orator of the day. Nor was he the only man who suffered in a pre-civil rights America or the only man who knew what had to change. His gift was that he didn’t go around telling people WHAT we needed to do or WHAT we needed to change. He went around and told people WHY. He believed in something and we believed in his dream. That’s what inspired us to band together to change America. It started with WHY.
Yes, I visited Ramstein, Spangdahlem and Aviano Air Bases in Europe. It was an honor to speak to so many men and women who put on a uniform every day to serve. They understand, often more than businesses, the concept of WHY. A WHY, at the end of the day, is a belief. HOWs are the actions we take to realize that belief. And WHATs are the results of those actions – the things we say and do. Those who serve in the military understand what it means to show up to be a part of something bigger than yourself. We even call their jobs “service.” How many people feel like they “serve” a nobler purpose when they go to work? The willingness to show up, work hard and sacrifice because you believe in what your country represents and what it stands for is one of the greatest examples of WHY there is. When I visit these bases, by sharing the concept of WHY with them, it puts into words the very intense feeling they have towards their jobs. It’s inspiring.
Every person has a WHY and every organization has a WHY. And both only have one. You can’t have four WHYs. Your WHY doesn’t change or go away, it is either in balance or out of balance. You are either saying and doing the things that bring to life your WHY or you’re not. For a person, your WHY is formed when you are young. It is the sum total of who you are, how your parents raised you and the experiences you had. Once formed, your life offers opportunities for you to live your WHY or not. We all know what it feels like. When we’re passionate and everything “feels” like it’s going well – that’s because the WHY is there, even if we can’t put it into words. The reason it’s just a feeling that we can’t put into words is because the WHY exists in the part of the brain that controls feelings – like trust and loyalty, it also controls behavior and decision making, but it doesn’t control language. That’s where gut decisions come from and that’s the reason we say those decisions just “feel” right. It’s not your gut. . . it’s the WHY.
All organizations were started at some point by a person or small group of people. In those cases, the WHY of the organization is the same as the founder’s WHY. The company is one of the things they did in their life to bring to life their WHY. The personality, the WHY of Apple is the same as Steve Jobs. The WHY of Virgin is the same as Richard Branson. The WHY of Microsoft is the same as Bill Gates. The challenge and opportunity all organizations face is to extract the WHY from the founder/leader and build it into the fabric of their cultures. This is the reason so many organizations don’t thrive the same way after their inspiring founder/leaders leave. The new CEO understands WHAT the company does, has ideas HOW to do it, but is rarely clear on WHY the company was founded and even more rarely makes decisions in pursuit of that cause. It’s not an accident that we say of companies whose founder/leaders depart, “it’s not like it used to be.” They no longer inspire. They just manage WHAT they do and HOW they do it. Their WHY goes fuzzy.
What advice do you give to someone who is struggling to find their WHY?
As I said before, your WHY comes from your own background and upbringing. For example, a CEO that grew up in the depression, grows up to become a miserly CEO. That’s not because he read in some management book the importance of being miserly – it’s because he grew up in the depression! The same is true for all of us. Our WHY is formed when we’re young. So if you want to rediscover your WHY, that’s where you have to look.
If it’s for an individual, don’t think about the work you’re doing now. You’re too close to it and you have too many opinions. Go back to all the jobs you’ve had, write a long list of them. Or write down the things you’ve done over the years. Circle all the ones that you loved. Not liked – that’s rational. I mean the ones you really loved. The ones you miss. The ones that you consider special. Then look to see what all those circled items have in common. Not the 5 things or the 10 things – the one common thread. That will give you a clue as to what your WHY is. The goal then becomes to only do things where that thing is present. If it’s there – you’ll love what you do. If it’s not, you may like it, but you won’t love it…even if you’re paid well.
If it’s for an organization, go back to the founding of the company. Why was the company founded? I don’t mean what marketing opportunity did it fill, but what was the problem the founder was trying to solve? What was going on in their lives that they saw this product or service as the way forward? For example, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak grew up in Northern California during the Vietnam War – the hot bed of anti-government and anti-establishment sentiment. Apple was and still is their revolution. They wanted to challenge the status quo of large companies, monopolies, anything that suppresses the creativity of the human spirit. They were the champion for the individual. That has always been the case and is to this day. All these companies that grew to any sizable proportions were all founded with a belief or a cause bigger than their products or services. It was their products or services that helped them bring that cause to life.
Simon Sinek is the author of Start With WHY (Penguin). He created a simple model, The Golden Circle, that codifies what makes the most inspiring people and organizations so successful and influential. The concept is so powerful that it is changing the way people think, act and communicate. From the Pentagon, to the United Nations, to Hollywood. Simon has been invited to talk about The Golden Circle across the United States and around the world. He advises a wide of variety of leaders and organizations, including small businesses and entrepreneurs, corporations like Microsoft, non-profits, government and politicians. More and more people are learning to become more effective, more efficient and more inspiring by discovering how to start everything they say and do with WHY. He is quoted frequently by national publications and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and BrandWeek.