Why is the Most Important Question

Why do some leaders gain a following and others don’t make a lasting impact? Why do many companies struggle to achieve and maintain success, while a few achieve astonishing customer loyalty and profitability? In Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek argues that long-term success comes from a simple yet powerful concept – start with WHY.

Who Is This?

According to his site bio, Simon Sinek is a trained ethnographer who became fascinated with why some marketing campaigns work and others don’t. Then he asked a bigger question: why might two companies with similar technologies, the same access to information, and sufficient money, have startlingly different levels of success? The answer that Sinek eventually landed on was the big idea of Starting with Why.

What’s the Big Idea

Sinek spends a large chunk of the book defining what exactly he means by “Why”. He distinguishes the “Why” of his title from what a company does (the products it sells, the industry it’s in) or how it achieves particular goals (its strategies or value proposition). An organization’s “why” is no less than the company’s vision, its purpose. It answers the question, “why does this organization exist?”

Sink argues that having a strong and clearly-defined Why is a prerequisite to long-term success. Without a defined Why, a company cannot meaningfully align itself around a purpose. All of a successful company’s Hows and Whats should radiate outwards from an articulate and loud Why. “Why” is the compass, pointing the company in the right direction when there’s a decision to be made.

In addition, Sinek spends a lot of time talking about how customers resonate to a company’s Why. A company that demonstrates a clear purpose through its day-to-day actions will develop a reputation for authenticity. Moreover, consumers who believe in the same Why or share a similar purpose will be drawn to the organization, demonstrating their own Why through the action of consuming the company’s products. This authentic resonance, argues Sinek, is what builds brand loyalty and is the only long-term way to maintain a strong customer base. He contrasts this with various “manipulations” such as cutting prices, inducing fear, or implying expert or mass approval.

My Take

Start With Why is fairly good, which is frustrating because I love the idea behind it and I wanted it to be GREAT.

  • While he uses both personal and business examples, the book seems overall to be aimed at heads of businesses trying to figure out their organization’s purpose. Individuals who aren’t in the C-suite and don’t run their own companies may find the business focus a tad off-putting.
  • Sinek loves Apple. LOVES Apple. Which I know because he talks about how perfectly Apple embodies the Start With Why concepts A LOT. By the time you finish the book, you begin to wonder if “Simon Sinek” is actually just Steve Wozniak’s pen name.
  • He spends the first several chapters dancing around his central point. The entire first section of his book discusses failures of traditional marketing “manipulations” and some examples of people who failed by not starting with why. All of this comes before Sinek’s even started to explain what “Why” is, let alone why it’s important. It’s a weird structure from someone whose entire point is that you should start with your purpose.
  • Even at only about 250 pages, it feels a bit flabby. Truthfully, you could get almost all of the meaningful content contained in his book from his TED talk of the same name.
  • He doesn’t spent a ton of time on “how to find your (or your organization’s) purpose”, although from his website it looks like he sells a variety of tools for that process.

That said, it’s still a pretty good book. I like that Sinek takes a stab at connecting his concept to our understanding of the brain. I felt that the book got stronger as we went along; he seems to hit his stride around section three. I also appreciate that he spends some time talking about the risks and challenges associated with “starting with why”, from success making your purpose go fuzzy to the hurdle of changing leadership.

Also, the idea is just so brilliant. Sinek has explicated something here that is so intuitively reasonable. I had an “ah, yes, I’ve always thought that but never had the words to explain!” moment and I suspect most people would as well.

Meant For

Anyone who isn’t quite connected to the idea of “having a purpose” or who can’t quite verbalize why it’s important to have a “why”. In particular, executives and business owners.

Bottom Line

Of the two I think I recommend the TED talk more. But if you’re among the “meant for” group, the ideas behind the book make it worth checking out if you can find it at the library.

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek – 256 pages – republished by Portfolio on December 27, 2011


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