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

As I look around at various organizations to which I belong, whether it’s for work, volunteer, or past organizations, I believe the organizations are not as strong as they could be because they do not effectively talk about why they exist. This viewpoint has come to me after reading Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action*. In his book, he indicated that a number of organizations talk about what they do and how they do it but don’t tap into why they do it. As he explained in his book, it is the why that drives the loyalty of its employees, its customers, and its fans.

In his book, Sinek compared and contrasted organizations and individuals that are extremely successful to organizations that could be more successful if they understood and communicated why they were doing what they are doing. Examples he provided included Apple, Southwest, and individuals like Martin Luther King, President Kennedy, the Wright brothers, and many more.

“There are leaders and there are those who lead.” (Sinek, 2009, p. 5)

Towards the beginning of the book, Sinek explained individuals can be influenced by motivation or inspiration. Both of these methods tap into the same part of the brain; one is driven by fear, and  the other is driven by hope. As I write this, we are now looking for the next President of the United States. You can see different types of campaigns. These campaigns tap into these different methods of influence. Unfortunately, fear-driven motivation is not as long-lasting as one inspiration-driven. Leaders need to tap into inspiration; this is directly related to why you are doing things. Senik noted in his book we will tolerate inconvenience and higher cost based on loyalty. Some of the examples that he gave were Apple and Harley-Davidson. Individuals will purchase these products even though they come at a greater cost and may not even necessarily be better products. It’s all tied into loyalty, which is based on why the company and its founder do what they do.

As I noted in the beginning, many of the organizations I have worked for seem to be just taking care of the what and how. They deliver good products but they are not inspiring people to use those products because they are not effectively communicating their why.

Start with Why is 246 pages long and spans 6 parts across 14 chapters. These various parts cover the following topics:

  • Part 1 – A World that Doesn’t Start with Why
  • Part 2 – An Alternative Perspective
  • Part 3 – Leaders Need a Following
  • Part 4 – How to Rally Those Who Believe
  • Part 5 – The Biggest Challenge is Success
  • Part 6 – Discover Why

In the first part, Senik compared and contrasted organizations who are closely tied to the WHY to others who start with what they do and don’t effectively address why they do it. He also talked about the two methods of influence: motivation and inspiration.

Senik looked at a concept he called the Golden Circle. He basically showed concentric circles starting from the outside—the WHAT, followed by the middle circle—the HOW, and finally, the central circle, the most important Circle—the WHY. He also tied this concept to biology as he discussed the link between the Golden Circle and the neocortex and the limbic parts of the brain.

In the third part, Senik talked about the idea of trust as well as Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation. He presented ideas for how leaders can inspire people and gain their trust. What I found really important in this part is we should not spend a lot of time focusing on the majorities or laggards rather we should focus on innovators and early adopters to help attract followers.

Diffusion Of Innovation
A graph of Everett Rogers Technology Adoption Lifecycle model. CC-BY-SA 3.0

In part four, Senik focused on gathering the right people around you. Leaders of an organization have to know their WHY and communicate it to others. However, there still needs to be individuals who will put the WHY into action. You need people to take care of the HOWs and the WHATs. They don’t necessarily have to develop the vision but they have to make it come to life.

Part five focused on organizations who lost their way when their WHY became obscure. One of the examples that stood out to me was Walmart. Sam Walton had a specific vision of why his company existed, but this was lost when he passed away. As a result, his company is now tied to scandal after scandal.

Finally, in part six, Senik talked about the discovery of the WHY. What I found to be interesting was this is not necessary looking forward but rather looking backward to understand why you are/were motivated to do what you do. The last idea Senik addressed was focusing on continuous improvement. Compete against yourself to create a better version of yourself/company rather than try to compete against other companies. Fine-tune the essence of what you do.

On a negative note, the book does seem to be repetative as Senik seems to address the same stories many times.

I believe this book should be required reading for all leaders of organizations whether that be institutions of higher education, volunteer organizations, service industries, non-profits, businesses, etc. Personally, I am looking at things that I do and reframing them as I start with WHY. I need to better communicate why I do what I do in an effort to improve my service to others. I strongly recommend Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action to others.

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