Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek, is one of the most influential books on leadership in the last decade, selling over a million copies in the U.S. alone. Sinek’s talk presenting the material became one of the most-watched TED talks of all time, with over 50 million views.
The core premise of the book is that “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”
Sinek describes what he calls the “Golden Circle,” which consists of three concentric circles. On the outer ring is “What” – the product or service you produce. The middle ring is “How” – your value proposition. However, the inner circle and the foundational element is “Why” – your reason for existing, your purpose.
Sinek connects the concept of the Golden Circle to the biology of the brain. He correlates the outer neocortex of the brain, responsible for rational thought and language, with “What.” The inner, limbic system of the brain which controls both emotion and behavior, correlates with “How” and “Why.” Sinek illustrates the importance of starting with why by sharing examples from business, history, and culture such as Apple, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Wright brothers.
The principles in Start with Why have been very helpful in focusing leaders on the primacy of purpose in leadership. Both the numbers of reviews on Amazon (about 20,000) and the high average rating (4.6 out of 5) give evidence of the positive impact the book has made. We at Missional Enterprise have found the ideas helpful and clarifying as we have done strategic planning for our efforts. Every organization needs to have a solid, crystal clear understanding of its purpose, and that purpose should influence our approaches and activities, not the other way around. As Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, authors of the influential book Built to Last, described in the Harvard Business Review:
Companies that enjoy enduring success have core values and a core purpose that remain fixed while their business strategies and practices endlessly adapt to a changing world.
At the same time, the book seems to both go too far in some ways and not far enough in others. Sinek’s claims about the brain are fairly simplistic and seem to go beyond what trained neuroscientists say we currently understand about the brain. Sinek’s generalizations about the degree to which particular persons or organizations started with why are quite limited both in scope and depth and risk confusing correlation with causation.
The book also doesn’t go far enough in two ways. For one, the book does not provide significantly more content than the youtube video. Instead of the detailed justification and broader illustration of his premise that one might expect, the book comes across as repetitive. Finally, Sinek’s illustration seems to cry out for an even deeper circle than “Why.” We might fill that circle with the word “Who” – our core identity that connects to and influences our purpose. As followers of Jesus, we find our core identity in the image of God and our union with Christ.
In conclusion, Start with Why is well-written, easy to remember, and a helpful (albeit simplistic) description of the importance of knowing and explaining our purpose. Current and aspiring leaders of any sort can benefit from Sinek’s pithy explanations. On the other hand, most leaders can get nearly the same benefit from reading a summary of the book, or watching the popular TED talk (18 minutes). As mentioned earlier, Sinek’s presentation was helpful to us at Missional Enterprise, and we will be sharing our “Why” in an upcoming post – stay tuned.
Colossians 3:1-3: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (ESV)
What does it look like to live on the earth with our minds set on the things above – in our personal life, our relationships, and our enterprises? Let’s meditate on this verse and pray that God will empower us to live it this week.