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Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action


Lights. Camera. Inaction. Wait, that’s not right. Lights. Camera. Action. We all want action. We want to see people extraordinary and ordinary take action, to do something. We want to see the triumph of human achievement. We want to be inspired to take action. All too often, we’re stuck going through the motions. We step forward each day, not realizing the path we’re on or even why we’re on it. That’s what Simon Sinek wants us to do in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take ActionHe wants us to question the “why” of our journey so we leap down the path instead of trudge down it.

Building a Cathedral

There’s an old story recounted in Start with Why that bears repeating (and slightly reinterpreting). A man walks up to a mason who is busy with his trowel, and interrupts him with a question whose answer seems obvious: “What are you doing?” The man in a slightly grumbled voice answers, “I’m slaving away, laying one heavy block after another in the scorching hot sun. The work has gone on for as long as I remember, and I see no end in sight.” The stunned interviewer turns to the guy next to him, who is building the same wall, and asks him what he’s doing. The answer was shocking in its simplicity and powerful in its enthusiasm. He said, “I’m building a cathedral!”

Both men were working on the same wall. They endured the same conditions. They likely received similar pay. Everything about the men was the same, except the attitude of the second man was different. He wasn’t struggling to lift each block and place it. He was inspired. He knew what he was creating. He had the power of his why. He got to participate in the building of a cathedral.

The Rebel Within Us

Have you ever wondered how a motorcycle company that had a bad quality record and a lousy delivery record ended up becoming a cultural icon? The answer lies within us. Have you ever wondered how a computer company could ignite a revolution, lose its way, and begin to inspire us again?

At the heart of this power is the need for us to be rebellious. We need the ability to find a way to differentiate ourselves. It’s wired into our DNA as a way of ensuring that we can find a mate and reproduce, thus copying our genes. We need rebellion so that we can stand out from the herd and be found. (See Fascinate for more on the motivator of rebellion.) Harley-Davidson motorcycles capitalized on this rebellious nature in their branding, and they became popular motorcycles, in part because it felt like a bit of sanctioned rebellion to own one.

Apple’s ads have routinely attacked the status quo. Whether it’s the classic 1984 super bowl ad or their “I’m a Mac” campaign, they focused on the need to be an individual and stand free from the pack.

Sanctioned Rebellion

It’s a bit of an oxymoron. It’s internally inconsistent to say that you’re rebellious within the acceptable boundaries. If rebellion allows us to stand out and be found by a potential mate, why hasn’t society broken down? The problem with rebellion is that it gets you mates – or it gets you fates. That is, those who can be picked out as outliers are often the ones who are separated from the herd and eaten. So how do you be rebellious enough to get a mate but not so much that you’re separated from the herd?

The LA riots following the trial of four officers for beating Rodney King were certainly a period of rebellion. Whether this was a necessary or appropriate response or not, it left 50 people dead, 2,000 injured, and damage to over 1,000 buildings with estimated costs exceeding $1 billion. During this time of rioting, there was arson, looting, beatings, and other forms of lawlessness. However, if you look carefully at the photographs of the riots, you notice something odd. Looters and arsonists parking in between the lines in parking spots in the parking lots. Even at the peak of anger and rebellion, at least some of the looters didn’t want to disregard the social expectation to park between the lines.

We want rebellion, we want change, and in this case the actors wanted to cause harm. However, they weren’t willing to tear down the fabric of their reality and abandon everything they had known. Even in their moments of lawlessness they needed the structure of society.

Why did the riots happen? The perceived injustice at the freeing of four white police officers who beat a black man that was caught on tape. (I agree that it was an injustice but that’s not the point.) For a moment, a small voice in the crowd spoke a “why” to an angry crowd. The “why” was simply “something has to change.” This resonated so clearly that the message spread and the riots were started.

The Secret to Success

The bookshelves are filled with books that purport to have the keys to business success, yet over 80% of businesses will shut their doors within their first five years. It’s not that business owners aren’t reading the books – it’s that there’s no one answer. (Though I’ll say that most business leaders don’t spend enough time trying to learn more about new techniques to make them successful.)

In Search of Excellence and Built to Last both seek to find a formula for making large businesses successful over the long term. The Halo Effect describes the works of Peters and Waterman as well as Collins as better stories. There aren’t secrets here. The companies that In Search of Excellence identifies as “winners” aren’t necessarily winners anymore. The same can be said about the companies identified as “visionary” in Built to Last. Of businesses on the Fortune 500 list in 1955, 88% were gone by 2014. While there are some companies that have survived the test of time, they’re in the very serious minority. Even well-established companies like Barings Bank can come down in an instant when people forget this “why”.

Sinek implies that the secret to success isn’t in what organizations do or even in how they do it, but that they have a central “why” that helps to align the employees around the same mission. It’s like the focusing power of a Fresnel lens on a lighthouse. It keeps all the stray light into the main beam just like having a mission has. But lots of organizations have mission statements – what makes organizations really succeed?

Maybe it’s Lencioni’s observations in The Advantage about the need to overcommunicate. Maybe mission statements for most are, as The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices suggests, simple platitudes.

Mission not Message

Many great leaders are recognized for their great messages (see Great Speeches for Better Speaking). There are numerous books that focus on refining your message and communicating more effectively. (Buy-inCrucial ConversationsDialogue: The Art of Thinking TogetherInfluencerInfographicsPitch AnythingPlatformPresentation ZenSlide:ologyTED TalksThe Art of Explanation, and Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma are a few.) However, what helps organizations succeed over the long term isn’t the messaging. Manipulations – and messaging – can be effective in the short term, but in the long term they’re not enough to make something last. The problem is that each manipulation leads to the next, just like an addict who needs the next fix to get past the crash from the last one.

When the mission is right – and the people are really aligned with the message – extraordinary things can happen. Heroic Leadership tells the tale of the Jesuits and their insistence on keeping the mission above the people and above the doctrine of the religion. This mission, to bring Christ’s love to others through their words and particularly their deeds, has allowed the organization to continue for over 450 years despite numerous challenges. While the Jesuits might be an extreme case, having a mission makes it much easier to make everyday decisions. By knowing what you believe – your “why” – you have a guide for all the minute decisions that have to be made every day.

Influencing Behavior

Leaders are necessarily purveyors of control. Their goal is to shape the direction of others – to lead them in the direction that the leader chooses. Their tools are sometimes described as manipulation, but sometimes their tools are inspiration. Manipulation (sometimes called motivation to avoid the negative connotations) is the tool of choice for many leaders. It’s the quick fix of a candy bar with none of the sustaining effects of a well-balanced meal.

There are plenty of books and professionals who purvey these quick fixes to your leadership problems. For instance, books like 365 Ways to Motivate and Reward Your Employees with Little or No Money are a list of techniques for motivating employees with ways that don’t need money – and you don’t have to really think about. I’m not discouraging the use of the book. It’s a useful tool, but only as a way to supplement an inspired workforce fed on a well-balanced inspirational meal. Candy is fine as a snack or a treat, but it’s not sustainable.


Manipulation can also take a less positive turn in the form of fear. Fear is without a doubt a powerful motivator. However, fear has a long list of negative consequences, spelled out in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Fear doesn’t have to be the boss screaming at you about how bad you’re doing or how worthless you are – though those are good examples of bad behavior. Sometimes the fear is expressed in the power of a forced exchange.

Too many Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck with no reserve for losing their jobs. Depending upon the way you count it, somewhere between 40% and 62% of Americans don’t have the ability to live without their steady paycheck. As a result, leaders can – and sometimes do – threaten folks with their job as a form of manipulation. It’s a forced exchange, money for compliance, and people don’t believe there are any other options for them. This is a form of manipulation rooted in fear – just less overtly.

There are, at the same time, manipulations which are neutral or even positive. We may all have been manipulated into wearing seatbelts – but that’s an OK manipulation because it is for our best interests (see Unsafe at Any Speed). Nudge wouldn’t call this “libertarian paternalism”, because there’s no reasonable choice.

Choices are sometimes hard for folks to make. Despite Glaser’s articulate explanation of Choice Theory, there are still many choices where there are conflicting drives and desires. Motivational Interviewing is one technique for managing these conflicted situations and are in effect a manipulation no more or less than having a chiropractor manipulate your joints.

The problem with manipulation is that there are going to be some people who are hard to control with manipulation. Perhaps they’re resistant to fear tactics. Perhaps they can see the manipulation coming. In any case, not everyone is so easily manipulated and therefore, they make manipulation hard to do.


The heart of inspiration isn’t our rational minds. The heart of inspiration is our heart – or in the language of Jonathan Haidt – our elephant. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for the Rider-Elephant-Path model.) Inspiration is an emotional response. It’s something that Demand describes as magnetic. It has emotional appeal. Inspiration is looking forward into the best possible future and placing a stake in the ground that this is the place we want to be.

Gratitude and Humility

One of the most inspiring traits for me are the dual traits of gratitude and humility. Being filled with gratitude is a humbling experience. It reminds you that whatever power you have should be held in service to others. (See Humilitas for this definition of humility.) Robert Greenleaf implored us to be Servant Leaders. And while his advice was great personal advice for being a better leader, it has the effect of inspiring everyone in the organization towards the humility of the leader and the mission they uphold.

If we look back at the Jesuits through the lens of Heroic Leadership, we see that St. Ignatius of Loyla was a leader with such deeply-held convictions and humility that inspired the Jesuits to be better people. The character of the leader is the inspiration that some people follow.

Many years ago, while at a National Speakers Association convention, I heard for the first time a powerful phrase. It was simply “The Privilege of the Platform.” It was said to remind the speakers there that the stage (platform) that they were standing on, and the fact that so many people were generously giving their attention, was a privilege. It was a bit of humility in an otherwise ostentatious group.

Showing Up for Inspiration

When Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, how many people came out for Dr. King? Officially, the number of people who turned up was 250,000. However, how many of them came up for Dr. King? In truth, we don’t know; but what we do know is most the folks who came to hear that speech came for themselves. They wanted to be identified as the kind of people who cared about civil rights, equality, and free speech. Their attendance that day said more about them and what they wanted to do rather than the following of Dr. King.

Herein is a fundamental truth. Leaders inspire people not to their cause but to live out the causes that are already within them and to attract to themselves those who have similar values.

Marketing the What

When you’re reading marketing books, there is a lot of push towards helping people with what you do. (Guerrilla MarketingDuct Tape Marketing, and The New Rules of Marketing and PR are good examples.) They’re all about helping organizations and individuals understand what you can do for them. A good sales process is about helping the prospect understand how you can make their life better. You’re looking for the pain that you can solve. (You can look at The Challenger Sale for more on the sales process.) However, what Sinek is proposing is that this is backwards. He concludes that people need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing before they know what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, so they can decide whether they care, want to pay attention, are similarly motivated as you.

Here Sinek provides some compelling examples of messages that start with why, flow through how, and end up with what you can do for a customer. Certainly, there are places where this makes sense. However, as I pondered his writing with some thought experiments, I wondered “why” a landscaper did what he did – and whether that would resonate with customers. Perhaps he wants to create relaxing spaces for everyone or he wants to be able to work outside. In either case, I don’t know that I care if I’m hiring him to mow my lawn. (Which is the work that most landscapers do because it’s steady and pays the bills.)

In my own case, I know that my “why” for technology is to make the complicated simple. In our healthcare work, we do work to prevent people from being harmed. However, my friend Paul Culmsee would challenge me that these sounds like platitudes. In his book The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, he challenges us to reasonably disagree with a statement as a test to ensure it’s not a platitude. I’ve found some technologists who really do try to make the simple complicated – and I know from our conversations that he has as well, so there I think I’m safe.

The harder one is preventing people from being harmed. The Hippocratic oath is to do no harm. We do occasionally see providers who aren’t working in their patients’ best interests, and instead are performing useless procedures because they’re being paid fee-for-service and therefore making money only when performing services.

Does knowing what drives me cause anyone to work with me more (or less)? I don’t know. It feels like knowing this isn’t a strong motivating factor one way or the other.

Customers and Competitors

One interesting difference between our customers and our competitors is that competitors tend to see the differences between themselves and their competitors. They’re keenly aware of the differences in the offerings and what that means to the customer. This is the curse of knowledge happening. They know so much about the situation that they’re literally disconnected from the view of the customer. (See The Art of Explanation for more on the curse of knowledge.)

Customers are, however, much less sophisticated. They see a solution to their problem, and they tend to underestimate the value of the differences between products, because the differences are too nuanced and subtle for them to really understand.

Similarly, competitors, innovators, and trail blazers can’t ask customers what they want, because they don’t know. Ford is reported to have said that, had he surveyed his customers, they would have said they wanted a faster horse – not an automobile. Clearly an automobile is better than a faster horse, but the customers had no frame of reference for asking for it.

Lifting You Up

The true power of “why” isn’t in whether you can attract more customers or even in being a better leader. The true power of “why” is in giving you the willpower or grit to continue when your day-to-day life is grinding you down. (See Grit for grit and Willpower for willpower.)

I’m getting a clear picture of my “why” – of why I do what I do what I do. I don’t know whether it will help me be more successful or whether it will just bring me more peace. However, I know that I want to Start with Why and let things come as they are going to come.