Inspiring leadership starts with Why

Start With Why bookWhy is it that a company can write glowingly about its specs and features and even its benefits and elicit not much more that a yawn? Why do we meet the promises of our politicians with such apathy? Why are we so focused on convincing and manipulating people instead of inspiring them?

We think we make important decisions rationally, but we almost never do. Instead, we are driven by, and respond to, signals that are difficult to articulate, but powerful when we receive them. And to be effective and meaningful, those signals always start with “WHY”.

That’s the premise of Simon Sinek’s fascinating study of leadership called “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” (Portfolio/Penguin).

You may know Sinek from his TED Talk, which I’ve blogged about previously. His book expands and details those concepts with many examples that go far beyond the few in his video. If you buy his basic premise, that the WHY is the hook that connects us to the brands and ideas we care about most deeply, then his book will flesh out your understanding and give you lots of fodder for your thinking.

I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of Sinek’s writing style. I find him too pedantic and repetitive. But that may also be because this is the kind of book many won’t read cover-to-cover, and he had to include repeated references and reminders to anchor his points. I’ll give him a break on that score because his fundamental idea is so important.

That idea is well worth incorporating into our communications — not just our marketing efforts but our broader role as leaders (and we’re almost all leaders in some sense, but that’s another conversation). We want to start with the WHY. The belief. The purpose. That’s what will enlist followers in our vision. As Sinek points out, Martin Luther King didn’t say, “I have a plan.” He said, “I have a dream.” And millions of people who shared that dream of fairness and equality, who also imagined a world where people were treated like people, thought, “Hey, this guy thinks like I do… he wants what I want.”

Notice that they didn’t say, “Hmmm, that’s an interesting idea.” as if they had never imagined a world like that themselves. King tapped into something that was already there. He attracted the people who already believed what he believed, and then galvanized them to action. They became a movement because of the WHY.

Sinek explains that brands work the same way. People love or hate Apple. But the reason the company has so many rabid fanboys is because they stand for something and are willing to start their communications with that central value. If you identify with their rebellious creativity and obsession with design detail, with their core belief in challenging the status quo and thinking differently (their WHY), you’re on board. And you’ll pay more for it, because it reflects who you are, and meshes with your personal values.

That WHY pulls a company, a leader, a brand, out of the swamp of commoditized, transaction-based competitors. It means you no longer need to offer a lower price than everyone else. It means you don’t need to drive volume with coupons and discounts and sales in a never-ending downward spiral of slimmer and slimmer margins. It means you create products or companies you love and care about, and your customers are people who feel the same way.

That’s why Sinek’s message means so much to me in my own business, and to my clients’ businesses as well, whether or not they’ve read the book. Creating work I care about for people who feel the same way? That’s my dream job. And I bet it’s yours, too.

Grab a copy of Start With Why. And start letting people know what you really value.

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