Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

by Simon Sinek
Book Review by Zelda Harrison

Books on effective management and leadership have been the publisher’s staple for decades, making it hard to believe that anyone can redefine the extensive and the influential work of Peter Drucker and his fellow “Business Thinkers” or “Social Ecologists.” So it’s hardly surprising that on the surface, Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” appears to be another addition to the long list of self-help publications for aspiring leaders and management gurus.

Arguably, Sinek’s clean, concise writing style and illustrations of (currently) successful companies such as Apple, Southwest, and leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. could be touted as relevant to a new generation and highly-accessible to a general audience. For the SonicRim Book Club, the true value of his work probably hinges on his observations about human motivation, and provides useful insight into the decision-making process, human dynamics, and building brand loyalty.

Jumping off of the notion that “Happy People Build Happy Institutions,” Sinek’s theory applies to individuals as well as organisations, and he doesn’t hesitate to illustrate his thoughts with personal experiences.

Sinek’s “Why” Principle

Inspiration is a central theme to “Start With Why.” Sinek debunks the traditional tools of buyer motivation (deemed manipulative), namely price discounting and promotions, fear and peer pressure, and aspirational messaging. While these tactics successfully attract an audience or customers, according to Sinek, they are condemned to fail because manipulations lead to transactions, not loyalty.

To counter this trend, Sinek has devised the concept of the  Golden Circle, three cocentric rings featuring “Why,” “How,” and “What,” and its 3-Dimensional counterpart, the Cone. The Golden Circle is based on the Golden Ratio, a theory championed over centuries by natural scientists and the creative arts. Sinek asserts that the patterns of the Golden Circle are just as predictable and easy to replicate as the mathematical logic of the Golden Ratio.

At the center of cocentric rings is “Why”: 

Simply copying WHAT Apple does or HOW it does it won’t work. There is something more, something hard to describe and near impossible to copy that gives Apple such a disproportionate level of influence in the market…people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” (Sinek 41)

Sinek believes the logic of the Golden Circle is directly linked to biology, in that it mimics our brain structure and the relationship our neocortex (representing rational thoughts and language) and our limbic brain (feelings, instinct, trust and loyalty); he cites the neuroscientist’s Restak assertion that “decisions made with

the limbic brain, gut decisions, tend to be faster, higher-quality decisions.”

For Sinek, staying the the course and keeping the focus on “Why” is a key element of success.

Other Thoughts and Highlights

Sinek also traces the origins of product commodification, which he links directly to the sin of subsidizing customers with the “transactional tactics” described above, but which can also apply to consultants and service providers who overemphasize pricing in their proposals. He also touches on the dichotomy of “novelty” versus “innovation,” a hot topic within the Anthro- and Industrial design communities, placing the former firmly in the bin of transactional tactics. Success is carefully parsed into a “state of being” versus an “achievement” and directly linked back to “Why.”

Engaging but Not Enough

As an introduction to management theory, “Start with Why” is worth an afternoon’s browse, and is certainly an ideal piece in an arsenal of client management resources. Then again, while Sinek’s “Why” principle is engaging, it appears to suffer from the limitations of most management theories as it lacks tagible solutions on making “How” work. While he does allude to best communications practices in implementing the inspiration and motivation he champions, there doesn’t seem to be easily-replicated formula or measure of its success. Conceivably, it is the mark of  good leadership to figure this out and navigate each entity’s specific culture, but more focus on how the cited companies permeated their environments with “Why” would have strengthened the case for an inspiring idea.

In true twenty-first century form, it might not be enough to focus on “Start With Why” the book, which is probably a primer for a traditional audience. If any of Sinek’s ideas resonnate, consider browsing his website for additional thoughts (the learning library has some really nicely fleshed-out discussions), view his TEDxTalks, and join his community.


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