Starting With “Why”

This will sound like a rather odd recommendation, but here it is. I find Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, a little full of himself. I’d heard the advice to start with questions of purpose and passion years ago, well before he wrote his book, so the idea that he invented or came up with all this is, well, a bit much. And his work with brain science feels at the same time both oversimplified and overstated. Finally, while he may be a perfectly lovely human being, he comes across as a bit self-important.

Having said all that, I’d still encourage you to watch his TED Talk, based on his book, about why great leaders start with the “why” of what they’re doing – the dreams, passions, and sense of purpose behind their work – rather than the “what” – the particular product or idea. Or at least watch the first five minutes, as he pretty much states and illustrates his thesis in those first minutes and then repeats it with an unusual combination of dramatic and simultaneously mind-numbing persistence.

So watch for five minutes. And then ask yourself how often you share your vision, passion, and purpose in whatever endeavor in which you are engaged with those you are leading. Whether you are trying to motivate a child to work harder at school, leading a company to develop a new product line, or help a congregation respond faithfully to a changing culture and community, are you sharing with them what is at stake, why you think this matters, how their effort will change their lives and the world? All too often we focus on the what (our goal) or the how (our strategy) instead of the why (our passion and purpose and general sense of why all the rest of this stuff matters). Effective leaders, Sinek argues, start with the why.

One last thought: I am regularly uncomfortable with the by-now stock comparison of Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King Jr. (Nancy Duarte makes the same comparison in her Talk) because of the huge difference in what I would call the “moral magnitude” of the impact of their work. And I am surprised that when we think of innovators and leaders our choices seem so limited. But perhaps that’s all the more reason each of us should “start with why” in whatever leadership positions we find ourselves. We all have opportunities to lead, to share our passion, and to motivate others to work from their values and convictions. Which is why we each can benefit from Sinek’s video, or at least the first five minutes of it. 🙂

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