the cover of the book Start With Why by Simon Sinek

Book Review: Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

WHY matters more than HOW or WHAT

"[P]eople don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it."

Ask yourself now: Why do you do what you do? You work hard at some things - why those things? Dig deep into the reasons and values underlying your work. What drives you forward?

What is your why?

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek (Portfolio, 2009) is a fast-paced marketing and business book that will help you better understand and brand yourself or your company. The gist: Most companies and organizations start with WHAT they do. You ask anyone there, they can tell you what they do. Some can also tell you HOW they do it. The individuals, companies, and organizations that stand out and keep loyalty over time know WHY they do what they do. They start with WHY.

How knowing WHY helps you

Knowing WHY means you have a clear brand. Knowing WHY means you stay on mission; you stay true to the vision; you always have a direction. You perform higher, you build more loyalty. Your WHY is your belief in your vision. Sinek writes,

"If we were all rational, there would be no small businesses, there would be no exploration, there would be very little innovation and there would be no great leaders who inspire all those things. It is the undying belief in something bigger and better that drives that kind of behavior."

In one of his early chapters, Sinek lists a bunch of common manipulations that companies and organizations use to entice you to buy their stuff: sales, promotions, prices, novelty, peer pressure, etc. These are generally extrinsic motivators, and can sometimes work in the short-term. Sinek's alternative is to start with WHY: i.e., start with values that align. Then, people will buy because they feel the company shares their values. Starting with WHY is about tapping into intrinsic motivation, which is why it seems to work long term.

(Read more about how motivation works)

Part of why Sinek's WHY works is because it gives transparency to behavior. We feel we better understand a company or individual when we know their WHY, which builds trust. Sharing values ignites our psychological preference for the familiar—and here is a company or individual with something in common with us!

I was reminded of the book Designing Your Life (read my review!), in which Bill Burnett and Dave Evans argue for "living coherently"—i.e., live in a way aligned with your values. Start With Why felt like the same message, but for companies and organizations rather than individuals charting their personal paths.

I was also reminded of two messages I shared in my book (forthcoming—here's the latest). The first was for students persevering through he dreary parts of their degree, to frame their work in terms of why they're doing it. Knowing why can improve motivation. The second was when sharing their work with other people, in presentations or in writing: start with the story. What's the reason someone else should care? In other words, what's the why?

The Golden Circle

The core of Sinek's book is the Golden Circle. It looks like this:

three concentric circles with the word why inside the innermost circle, the word how inside the second circle, and the word what inside the outermost circle
Sinek's golden circle

Sinek argues that you need all three circles to be successful. The core is WHY. Visionaries come up with WHY:

"Great leaders and great organizations are good at seeing what most of us can't see. They are good at giving us things we would never think of asking for."

WHY is your belief, your vision, your reason for making a product or providing a service. WHY people need help implementing their vision. They need people who know HOW to do things and they need people to work on WHAT the organization or company does. Most people, fortunately, are happy to latch onto a vision and work to achieve it.

"Everything you say and everything you do has to prove what you believe. A WHY is just a belief. That's all it is. HOWs are the actions you take to realize that belief. And WHATs are the results of those actions—everything you say and do: your products, services, marketing, PR, culture and whom you hire."

Sinek's favorite example is Apple. Every chapter: Apple Apple Apple. Apple does have a clear brand that has panned out over time. But I really wanted other examples, especially individuals and small businesses with a strong WHY. Sinek discusses a few other companies—Southwest Airlines, Walmart, Starbucks. All modern big businesses! But 99% of businesses in America are small businesses. I wanted smaller, more relevant, human-scale examples.

The importance of trust

Sinek argued that trust was important in making WHYs work. Employees need to trust that the executives have their best interests in mind, that they also have company's best interests in mind, and that no one is just in it for self gain, because everyone is on board with the belief and value, the mission, the WHY. Sinek asks,

"If the leader of the organization can't clearly articulate WHY the organization exists, in terms beyond its products or services, then how does he expect the employees to know WHY to come to work?"

Trust matters in marketing, too. The majority of the market needs a trusted recommendation in order to buy. So, Sinek says, market to the early adopters. The people who "get it" and will recommend it to others later.

Staying true to your WHY

Sinek tucked the most interesting story in the book away in Chapter 13. That story was his own narrative: his first business, how he lost his WHY, how he came up with his golden circle concept, and rediscovered his WHY. I felt this story should have been far earlier in the book, both as intriguing context, and a way of building rapport with the reader. It's a great advertisement for the book, too: "I was once a poor small business owner like you who didn't know my WHY. But then I found it! Be like me!"

Sinek includes chapters about communication, marketing and influencers, success, and losing and rediscovering WHYs. He points out that achievement is not the same as feeling successful, which is similar (but not quite the same as) my views on success versus excellence. People achieve without feeling successful when they lose sight of why they're doing things. He writes,

"Gaining clarity of WHY, ironically, is not the hard part. It is the discipline to trust one's gut, to stay true to one's purpose, cause or beliefs. Remaining completely in balance and authentic is the most difficult part."

Sinek suggests that many companies and organizations measure success with the wrong metrics. If you measure money—debts collected, money paid, sales made, etc—then you're measuring WHAT. If your incentives line up with WHY—such as thank you cards mailed, customers smiling, etc—then you may be easier to stay aligned with your WHY. Measure what you care about.

Downsides: Too long; no exercises

This book was too long. It was developed after Sinek's TEDx talk. I think he could have cut some rambling sections and repeated stories, and generally streamlined his message.

The book also felt lacking in practical examples and actionable steps. There was plenty of discussion about why WHY matters, but not much help to figure your own (or your company's) WHY. The book would have benefited greatly from a couple concrete exercises walking the reader through the process of figuring out their WHY and crafting a powerful WHY statement they can use.

If you're trying to figure out your personal WHY, I recommend talking it over with your spouse or a close friend. They often see patterns you miss. I pegged my husband's WHY right off the bat and he started at me like his mind was blown.

One more downside: Sinek was a proponent of always trusting your gut instinct. This is bad advice. Adam Grant, in his book Originals (read my review), explained that going with your gut instinct is only useful if you are already an expert in whatever you're making a decision about. If you're not an expert, your gut feeling isn't based on anything or any experience in particular. On the other hand, when you are an expert, you've built up an intuitive sense of how things work in your area of expertise, so you can more safely go with your gut.

Who should read Start With Why?

Start With Why is an insightful book, tailored to people who want to develop a stronger brand and vision. Entrepreneurs and business owners will benefit. Individuals seeking a more authentic personal brand will benefit.

If you've already thought about why you're doing what you're doing, the book may not do as much for you. That was the case for me. I thought it was perceptive, but not groundbreaking—because the book's message that people should consider their beliefs and values when deciding their actions and careers wasn't new to me. I'd thought about these ideas before. Even so, it was a worthwhile read.

"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."

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