Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Thirty-Seven: Start with Why by Simon Sinek (and I read Zorba the Greek again)

The plethora of business and leadership books indicate a desire by many to improve either themselves or their business. While this is a worthwhile goal, a great many of the books published fail to address the fundamental issues which are behind successful people. Equally alarming is the number of them that not only miss the fundamental issues, but do it with deplorable writing in the process.

As a result, Simon Sinek's book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, should be a welcome addition to those few books which leaders return to and pass on to others. Sinek's thinking may have been heard in different formats in different times, but his simple and concise explanation of how to improve as a leader is something that can have an immediate impact on the reader.

Sinek begins by saying what he has to offer does not attempt to supplant others, nor will he fix all the things that do not work. Instead, he notes "I wrote this book as a guide to focus on and amplify the things that do work." Therein lies one of the many strengths of this book, namely that it is a positive book. While he does point to some failures to show how situations could have been different, his focus is on what has worked and why.

"Why" is the essential question. Sinek describes how leaders and companies should work as a series of circles, which he describes as "The Golden Circle" playing off the mathematical relationship of the "golden ratio" The first and central circle is "why," surrounded by "how," and the final encompassing circle is "what." The "what" describes the products or services of a company; in other words, it is what they do. "How" explains how companies get to what they do. "Why" is the purpose or belief which underlies the how and what.

Given the title of the book we can see where Sinek is heading. His premise is that companies which do well focus on their "why," while many companies which fail have lost that focus. Sinek believes that if customers understand the why of a company, and they believe in the why, they will naturally end up buying the "what." In other words, people like companies with a vision which matches their own. One element of this thought which gives more credibility to Sinek's thesis is that not everyone will like the vision of a company. Sinek is not offering the golden egg which will bring you fortune by attracting everyone. He says be true to your own vision and the rest will follow if they like what they hear.

His primary example is Apple, Inc. and their leader, Steve Jobs. Sinek points out that Apple computers are more expensive than PCs, have less software available to use on them, and at times are even slower than the competition. So why do people buy them? Because they buy into Apple's "why." Apple has from the beginning marketed itself as the rebel, the individual, the unique voice. They market themselves that way because that is how they envision themselves. People who buy into that vision will pay more for a computer that reflects their values. By focusing on their why, Apple has also been able to easily branch out from computers and and develop the iPod and iPhones. Those products fit their image as the rebel. Sinek says their products may not even be the best or first on the market, but they quickly emerge as the leader.

When a company forgets their why to focus on the what, they often fail. Volkswagon has been the automotive equivalent of peace and love since the VW van ruled the 1960s. They put a vase for flowers on their Beetle's dashboard! So when they introduced the Phaeton, a high-end luxury car, it failed. Volkswagon's engineering is legendary and the critics loved the Phaeton, but it did not represent the "why" of Volkswagon which has attracted so many people.

Sinek is quick to show that a clear "why" not only helps sales, it helps employees. If leaders want to inspire others than they need to show a vision for what they are doing. Here he moves out of business to show how this translates into social issues as well. He says if Martin Luther King, Jr. gave an "I Have a Plan" speech instead of "I Have a Dream," we may have received more details on how to accomplish something, but without the why the civil rights movement could not succeed. Leaders need to inspire followers with their "why," and if they succeed they'll find that vision being translated into success.

The book offers a number of examples to support Sinek's ideas as well as providing ideas for how to check on if an action is following the "why." Sinek himself is a business consultant, but he avoids putting together a compilation of his favorite exercises (and of course, how they lead to success); instead, he focuses on his "why" and creates a book which is not about him. Apple is successful, but they did it without Sinek. What Sinek does is look at those who have succeeded, figures out why, and then passes those ideas on to us.

This is a must read for leaders of any type, but also for anyone wanting to get back to basics. While he resists the temptation to create a self-help book, it is not  a stretch to see how making sure our personal actions reflect on our "why" will only lead to a fuller life. Sinek is new in the business publishing world, but with this start his future books will be eagerly awaited.

Sinek's website focuses on the concepts and offers some video links as well. His talk at Tedx is a great summary of the book -- but still read the book to get the full picture. 

Up Next
My oldest gave me my next two reads. First, Jorge Luis Borges' "Ficciones," and then a book of poetry by (for me) a local writer, Greg Rappleye's "A Path Between Houses." I'm not sure I'll get them both done next week and I'm starting with Borges, but I'll try.

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