Book Club: Simon Sinek’s Start With Why

Everyone is looking for the secret formula for success. The funny thing is, it might just be one word: why. In Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, he explains the power of simply asking why. The word goes a long ways. The best companies understand the why. The most successful athletes understand the why. Good coaching starts with why, as Vern Gambetta talked about on this week’s GAINcast. This month’s site theme is setting goals, and good goals start with why. Sinek summarizes the topic well early in the book:

“There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or influence. Those who lead inspire us.

Whether individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to.

We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.

This is a book for those who want to inspire others and for those who want to find someone to inspire them.”

Simon Sinek

Below are my notes from reading the book. Whether you have read the book or note, hopefully it helps you focus in on the key points and messages from Sinek. Before we start, a short disclaimer: the notes are a collection of direct quotes (often not in actual quotes), paraphrased quotes, and my own thoughts and notes. I didn’t distinguish between the three in any form or fashion. Quote all this at your own risk.

Introduction – What start with why?

The goal of this book is not simply to try to fix the things that aren’t working. Rather, it is a guide to focus on and amplify the things that do work. Most of the answers we get, when based on sound evidence, are perfectly valid. However, if we’re starting with the wrong questions, if we don’t understand the cause, then even the right answers will always steer us wrong eventually.

  • There are leaders and there are those who lead.
  • Just about every person or organization needs to motivate others to act for some reason or another. The ability to motivate people is not, in itself, difficult. Great leaders, in contrast, are able to inspire people to act.
  • Those who are able to inspire give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained. Those who truly lead are able to create a following of people who act not because they were swayed, but because they were inspired.

Part 1 – A world that doesn’t start with why

Chapter 1 – Assume You Know
  • Our behavior is affected by our assumptions or our perceived truths. We make decisions based on what we think we know. You have to be careful with what you think you know. Assumptions, you see, even when based on sound research, can lead us astray.
  • More data doesn’t always help us, especially if a flawed assumption set the whole process in motion in the first place.
  • Short story: American automakers used to have a person responsible for hammering doors in place. Japanese automakers didn’t have that person. Why? In the Japanese auto plant, they didn’t examine the problem and accumulate data to figure out the best solution – they engineered the outcome they wanted from the beginning. If they didn’t achieve their desired outcome, they understood it was because of a decision they made at the start of the process. There are those who decide to manipulate the door to fit to achieve the desired results and there are those who start from somewhere very different. Though both courses of action may yield similar short-term results, it is what we can’t see that makes long-term success more predictable for only one. The one that understood why the doors need to fit by design and not by default.
Chapter 2 – Carrots and Sticks
  • Manipulation vs Inspiration. If you ask most businesses why their customers are their customers, most will tell you because of superior quality, features, price, or service. In other words, most companies have no clue why their customers are their customers.
  • This is a fascinating realization. If companies don’t know why their customers are their customers, odds are good that they don’t know why their employees are their employees either.
  • There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.
  • Aspirational messages can spur behavior, but for most, it won’t last. Novelty can drive sales [remember the RAZR phone from the early 2000’s?] but the impact does not last.
  • Just as manipulations can drive a sale but not create loyalty, so too can they help a candidate get elected, but they don’t create a foundation for leadership. Leadership requires people to stick with you through thick and thin. Leadership is the ability to rally people not for a single event, but for years.
  • In business, leadership means that customers will continue to support your company even when you slip up.
  • There is a big difference between repeat business and loyalty. Repeat business is when people do business with you multiple times. Loyalty is when people are willing to turn down a better product or a better price to continue doing business with you. Manipulations lead to transactions, not loyalty.
  • Knowing you have a loyal customer and employee base not only reduces costs, it provides massive peace of mind. Like loyal friends, you know your customers and employees will be there for you when you need them most. It is the feeling of “we’re in this together,” shared between customer and company, voter and candidate, boss and employee, that defines great leaders.

Part 2 – An alternative perspective

Chapter 3 – The Golden Circle
  • The golden circle finds order and predictability in human behavior. Put simply, it helps us understand why we do what we do. The golden circle provides compelling evidence of how much more we can achieve if we remind ourselves to start everything we do by first asking why.
  • WHAT: Every single company and organization on the planet knows what they do. This is true no matter how big or small, no matter what industry. Everyone is easily able to describe the products or services a company sells or the job function they have within that system. Whats are easy to ID.
  • HOW: Some companies and people know HOW they do what they do. Whether you call them a differentiating value proposition, proprietary process, or unique selling proposition, HOWs are often given to explain how something is different or better. Not as obvious as WHATs, many think these are the differentiating or motivating factors in a decision. It would be false to assume that’s all that is required. There is one missing detail:
  • WHY: Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. When I say WHY, I don’t mean to make money – that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause, or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?
  • A marketing message from Apple, if they were like everyone else, might sound like this: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. Wanna buy one?” It’s not a very compelling sales pitch, but that’s what most companies do to us.
  • Let’s look at that Apple example again and rewrite the example in the way Apple actually communicates. This time, the example starts with WHY. “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”
  • People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.
  • I’m not so foolhardy as to propose that the product doesn’t matter; of course it does. But it’s the reason they matter that is contrary to the conventional wisdom. Their products, unto themselves, are not the reason Apple is perceived as superior; their products, WHAT Apple makes, serve as tangible proof of what they believe.
  • When an organization defines itself by WHAT it does, that’s all it will ever be able to do.
  • Most products and services on the market focus on WHAT they do and HOW they do it without consideration of WHY; we lump them together and they act like commodities. The more we treat them like commodities, the more they focus on WHAT and HOW they do it. It’s a vicious cycle.
  • Instead of asking, “WHAT should we do to compete?” the questions must be asked, “WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring our cause to life considering all the technologies and market opportunities available today?”

Chapter 4 – This is not opinion, this is biology
  • Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exists across all people in all cultures. It is a feeling we get when those around us share our values and beliefs. When we feel like we belong we feel connected and we feel safe. As humans we crave the feeling and we seek it out.
  • When a company clearly communicates their WHY, what they believe, and we believe what they believe, then we will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to include those products or brands in our lives.
  • We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe, and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us. Those whom we consider great leaders all have an ability to draw us close and command our loyalty.
  • The part of our brain that controls our feelings has no capacity for language. It is this disconnection that makes putting our feelings into words so hard. Gut decisions don’t happen in your stomach.
  • It’s not an accident that we use the word “feel” to explain those decisions either. The reason gut decisions feel right is because the part of the brain that controls them also controls our feelings.
  • Our limbic brains are smart and often know the right thing to do. It is our inability to verbalize the reasons that may cause us to doubt ourselves or trust the empirical evidence when our gut tells us not to.
  • A failure to communicate WHY creates nothing but stress or doubt.
  • Great leaders are those who trust their gut. They are those who understand the art before the science. They win hearts before minds. They are the ones who start with WHY.
  • The power of the limbic brain is astounding. It not only controls our gut decision, but it can influence us to do things that seem illogical or irrational. Leaving the safety of home to explore faraway places. Crossing oceans to see what’s on the other side. Leaving a stable job to start a business out of your basement with no money in the bank. Many of us look at these decisions and say, “That’s stupid, you’re crazy. You could lose everything. You could get yourself killed. What are you thinking?” It is not logic or facts but our hopes and dreams, our hearts and our guts, that drive us to try new things.
  • It’s no accident that the culture at Apple is often described as a cult. It’s more than just products, it’s a cause to support. It’s a matter of faith.
Chapter 5 – Clarity, Discipline, and Consistency
  • When the WHY is absent, imbalance is produced and manipulations thrive. And when manipulations thrive, uncertainty increases for buyers, instability increases for sellers, and stress increases for all.
  • Clarity of WHY
    • You have to know WHY you do WHAT you do. If you don’t know WHY you do WHAT you do, how will anyone else?
    • If the leader of the organization can’t clearly articulate WHY the organization exists in terms beyond its products and services, then how does he expect the employees to know WHY to come to work?
    • To lead requires those who willingly follow. It requires those who believe in something bigger than a single issue. To inspire starts with clarity of WHY.
  • Discipline of HOW
    • HOWs are your values or principles that guide HOW to bring your cause to life. HOW we do things manifests in the systems and processes within the organization and the culture.
    • Understanding HOW you do things and, more importantly, having the discipline to hold the organization and all its employees accountable to those guiding principles enhances an organization’s ability to work to its natural strengths.
    • Making it even more difficult for ourselves, we remind ourselves of our values by writing them on the wall…as nouns. Integrity. Honesty. Communication, for example. But nouns are not actionable. They are things. You can’t build systems or develop incentives around those things.
    • For values or guiding principles to be truly effective they have to be verbs. It’s not “integrity,” it’s “always do the right thing.” It’s not “innovation,” it’s “look at the problem from a different angle.
  • Consistency of WHAT
    • Everything you say and everything you do has to prove what you believe. A WHY is just a belief. That’s all it is. HOWs are the actions you take to realize that belief. And WHATs are the result of those actions – everything you say and do: your products, services, marketing, PR, culture and whom you hire.
    • The only way people will know what you believe is by the things you say and do, and if you’re not consistent in the things you say and do, no one will know what you believe. It is at the WHAT level that authenticity happens. Authenticity cannot be achieved without clarity of WHY.
    • Ask the best salesmen what it takes to be a great salesman. They will always tell you that it helps when you really believe in the product your selling. It is this authenticity that produces the relationships upon which all the best sales organizations are based. Relationships also build trust. And with trust comes loyalty. Absent a balanced golden circle means no authenticity, which means no strong relationships, which means no trust.
    • Authenticity is when you say and do the things you actually believe. But if you don’t know WHY the organization or the products exist on a level beyond WHAT you do, then it is impossible to know if the things you say or do are consistent with your WHY. Without WHY, any attempt at authenticity will almost always be inauthentic.
  • Doing Business is like Dating
    • To learn how to apply WHAT to a business situation, you needn’t look much further than how we act on a date. Because, in reality, there is no difference between sales and dating. Promise them the world and the odds are good that you will close the deal. Once. Maybe twice. With time, however, maintaining that relationship will cost more and more. No matter the manipulations you choose, this is not the way to build a trusting relationship.
    • WHATs don’t drive decision-making, WHATs should be used as proof of WHY.
    • In business, like a bad date, many companies work so hard to prove their value without saying WHY they exist in the first place.
    • The ability to put a WHY into words provides the emotional context for decisions. It offers greater confidence than “I think it’s right.’ It’s more scalable than “I feel it’s right.” When you know our WHY, the highest level of confidence you can offer is, “I KNOW it’s right.”
    • The goal of business should not be to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have. It should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe. When we are selective about doing business only with those who believe in our WHY, trust emerges.

Part 3 – Leaders need a following

Chapter 6 – The emergence of trust
  • You can’t have a good product without people who like coming to work. Happy employees ensure happy customers. And happy customers ensure happy shareholders – in that order.
  • Trust begins to emerge when we have a sense that another person or organization is driven by things other than their own self-gain. With trust comes a sense of value – real value, not just value equated with money. Value, by definition, is the transference of trust. You can’t convince someone you have value, just as you can’t convince someone to trust you. You have to earn trust by communicating and demonstrating that you share the same values and beliefs. You have to talk about your WHY and prove it with WHAT you do.
  • Leading is not the same as being a leader. Being the leader means you hold the highest rank, either by earning it, having good fortunate, or navigating internal politics. Leading, however, means that others willingly follow you – not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to.
  • We’ve succeeded as a species because of our ability to form cultures. Cultures are groups of people who come together around a common set of values and beliefs. We do better in cultures in which we are good fits. We do better in places that reflect our own values and beliefs. Just as the goal is not to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have, but to do business with people who believe what you believe, so too is it beneficial to live and work in a place where you will naturally thrive because your values and beliefs align with the values and beliefs of that culture.
  • The goal is not to hire people who simply have a skill set you need, the goal is to hire people who believe what you believe. When you fill an organization with good fits, those who believe what you believe, success just happens.
  • “You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.” – Herb Kelleher
  • Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them. Unless you give motivated people something to believe in, something bigger than their job to work toward, they will motivate themselves to find a new job and you’ll be stuck with whoever’s left.
  • The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen. It is the people inside the company, those on the front lines, who are best qualified to find new ways of doing things.
  • If the people inside a company are told to come to work and just do their job, that’s all they will do. If they are constantly reminded WHY the company was founded and told to always look for ways to bring that cause to life while performing their job, however, then they will do more than their job.
  • Companies with a clear sense of WHY tend to ignore the competition, whereas those with a fuzzy sense of WHY are obsessed with what others are doing.
  • Only individuals can trust the culture or organization will they take personal risks in order to advance that culture or organization as a whole. For those within a community, or an organization, they must trust that leir leaders provide a net—practical or emotional.
  • A company, indeed any organization, must work actively to remind everyone WHY the company exists. WHY it was founded in the first place. What it believes. They need to hold everyone in the company accountable to the values and guiding principles. It’s not enough to just write them on the wall – that’s passive. Bonuses and incentives must revolve around them. The company must serve those whom they wish to serve it.
  • Passion comes from feeling like you are part of something that you believe in, something bigger than yourself.
  • If a company doesn’t manage trust, then those working for it will not trust the company, and self-interest becomes the overwhelming motivation. To get the best out of employees, you need to create an environment in which they feel the company cares about them.
Chapter 7 – How a Tipping Point Tips
  • Although quick to see the potential and willing to take risks to try new technologies or ideas, early adopters are not idea generators like the innovators. Both groups are similar in that they rely heavily on their intuition. They trust their gut.
  • In the summer of 1963, a quarter of a million people showed up to hear Dr. King deliver his “I have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But how many showed up for Dr. King? Zero. They showed up for themselves. It was what THEY believed.
  • He gave an “I Have a Dream” speech, not the “I Have a Plan” speech. It was a statement of purpose and not a comprehensive twelve-point plan to achieving civil rights in America. Dr. King offered America a place to go, not a plan to follow. The plan had its place, but not on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Part 4 – How to rally those who believe

Chapter 8 – Start with why, but know how
  • When Bill Gates speaks, people listen with bated breath. They hang on to his every word. He doesn’t rally a room, he inspires it.
  • Energy motivates, but charisma inspires. Energy is easy to see, easy to measure and easy to copy. Charisma is hard to define, near impossible to measure and too elusive to copy. All great leaders have charisma because all great leaders have clarity of WHY; an undying belief in a purpose or cause bigger than themselves.
  • It’s not Bill Gates’s passion for computers that inspires us, it’s his undying optimism that even the most complicated problems can be solved. He believes we can find ways to remove obstacles to ensure that everyone can live and work to their greatest potential. It is his optimism to which we are drawn.
  • Charisma has nothing to do with energy; it comes from a clarity of WHY. It comes from absolute conviction in an idea bigger than oneself. Energy, in contrast, comes from a good night’s sleep or lots of caffeine. Energy can excite. But only charisma can inspire. Charisma commands loyalty. Energy does not.
  • Though Dr. King inspired the movement, to actually move people requires organizing. As is the case with almost all great leaders, there were others around Dr. King who knew better HOW to do that. For every great leader, for every WHY-type, there is an inspired HOW-type or group of HOW-types who take the intangible cause and build the infrastructure that can give it life. That infrastructure is what actually makes any measurable change or success possible.
  • A clear sense of WHY sets expectations. When we don’t know an organization’s WHY, we don’t know what to expect, so we expect the minimum—price, quality, service, features—the commodity stuff.
  • It doesn’t matter WHAT Ron Bruder does. The industries and the challenges are incidental. What never changes is WHY he does things. Bruder knows that, no matter how good an opportunity looks on paper, no matter how smart he is and no matter his track record, he would never be able to achieve anything unless there were others to help him. Bruder doesn’t run companies, he leads movements.
Chapter 9 – Know why. Know how. Then what?
  • Communicate clearly and you shall be understood.
Chapter 10 – Communication is not about speaking, it’s about listening
  • If WHAT you do doesn’t prove what you believe, then no one will know what your WHY is and you’ll be forced to compete on price, service, quality, features and benefits; the stuff of commodities.
  • It is not a company or organization that decides what, its symbols mean, it is the group outside the megaphone, in the chaotic marketplace, who decide. If, based on the things they see and hear, the outsiders can clearly and consistently report what an organization believes, then, and only then, can a symbol start to take on meaning. It is the truest test of how effective a megaphone has been produced—when clarity is able to filter all the way through the organization and come to life in everything that comes out of it.
  • It is a flawed assumption that what works for one organization will work for another. Even if industries, sizes, and market conditions are the same, the notion that “if it’s good for them, it’s good for us” is simply not true. Put simply, best practices are not always best.
  • It is not just WHAT or HOW you do things that matters; what matters more is that WHAT and HOW you do things is consistent with your WHY.
  • There is nothing inherently wrong with looking to others to learn what they do, the challenge is knowing what practices or advice to follow. Filtering your decisions through your WHY, you spend less time and less money, so there’s an efficiency advantage also.
  • As soon as I gave you the filter, as soon as I said the WHY, you knew exactly what decision I was going to make before I said so. And that’s called Scale. With a WHY clearly stated in an organization, anyone within the organization can make a decision as clearly and as accurately as the founder.

Part 5 – The biggest challenge is success

Chapter 11—When WHY goes fuzzy
  • Achievement comes when you pursue and attain WHAT you want. Success comes when you are clear in pursuit of WHY you want it. The former is motivated by tangible factors while the latter by something deeper in the brain, where we lack the capacity to put those feelings into words.
Chapter 12 – Split Happens
  • It is not a coincidence that successful entrepreneurs long for the early days. It is no accident that big companies talk about a “return to the basics.” What they are alluding to is a time before the split [between their WHY and their HOW/WHAT]. And they would be right. They do indeed need to return to a time when WHAT they did was in perfect parallel to WHY they did it.
  • A Bridgeport Financial [a collections agency], bonusses were not given for the amount of money that was collected; they were given based on how many “thank you” cards her agents sent out. Only good-fit hires were capable of creating an environment on the telephone that would actually warrant sending a thank-you card, even though the purpose of the call was to ask for money.

Part 6 – Discover why

Chapter 13 – The origins of a WHY
  • The WHY does not come from looking ahead at what you want to achieve and figuring out an appropriate strategy to get there. It is not born out of any market research. It does not come from extensive interviews with customers or even employees. It comes from looking in the completely opposite direction from where you are now. Finding WHY is a process of discovery, not invention.
Chapter 14 – The new competitions
  • If you follow your WHY, then others will follow you.
  • When you compete against everyone else, no one wants to help you. But when you compete against yourself, everyone wants to help you.
  • Now think of how we do business. We’re always competing against someone else. More features. Better service. Better quality. And no one wants to help us. What if we showed up to work every day simply to be better than ourselves?
  • Our goal is to find customers who believe what we believe and work together so that we can all succeed.