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[Book Summary] Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Start With Why (2009) tackles a fundamental question: What makes some organizations and people more innovative, influential, and profitable than others? Based on best-selling author Simon Sinek’s hugely influential lecture of the same name, the third most-watched TED talk of all time, these summaries unpack the answer to that conundrum. As Sinek’s examples show, it’s all about asking why rather than what.

[Book Summary] Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Learn to inspire others by leveraging the power of why.
How to inspire . . . and how not to
Apple and the Golden Circle
How to start with why
Final Summary
About the author
Video and Podcast

Genres

Management, Leadership, Industries, Computers and Technology Industry, Entrepreneurship, Motivation, Business, Self Help, Personal Development, Psychology

Introduction: Learn to inspire others by leveraging the power of why.

Have you ever heard of Puget Sound? If you’re not from the Pacific Northwest or a distinguished connoisseur of naval shipyards, the answer is likely no. So when the TEDx conference happened there in 2009, in an inconspicuous room that seated slightly more than a hundred people, it wasn’t a big deal. The first speaker of the night was a no-name, a law school dropout who’d gone into marketing. And his microphone didn’t even work properly until it was suddenly switched on mid-speech.

But listeners soon realized that there was something captivating about the guy. The room was so silent you could’ve heard a pin drop – the audience was that captivated. At one point, he drew three concentric circles on a whiteboard. In the middle, in big, fat letters, he wrote a single word: “why?” Then he uttered a sentence that he would go on to repeat endlessly throughout not only the talk but also the rest of his life: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” No one realized it at the time, but this would become the third most clicked-on TED talk of all time. The title: “Start with Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” And the name of the speaker? Simon Sinek.

In the chapters that follow, we’ll be walking you through the book that followed Sinek’s famous TED Talk and which has the same name. At this point, the book is just in its teenage years, but it’s already a classic; if you want to start a business or become a leader, there’s no way around it. In this summary, you’ll learn two things: first, how to come up with an inspiring vision; second, how to communicate it. In his talk and his book, Sinek often used Apple as an example, and we’ll do the same. Here’s what to expect: we’ll lay some groundwork, explaining how inspiring leadership works according to Sinek and what the three concentric circles – also known as the Golden Circle – have to do with it. Then we’ll get practical, and you’ll get some tips on how to apply it in your everyday business practices – that is, how you can find your “why” and put it into practice. So without further ado, let’s get right into it.

How to inspire . . . and how not to

All right! The goal here is to turn you into an inspirational leader – if you aren’t one already. Before that can happen, though, you need to understand what inspiration actually is and how it works. And to understand inspiration, it’s best to first understand its opposite.

Sinek identifies two main ways to influence the behavior of others, whether they’re your employees or customers: inspiration and manipulation. And while companies want to be inspirational, many of them are actually manipulative.

Mind you, “manipulation” here doesn’t mean brainwashing people into buying products or anything; it refers to a strategy of laying out incentives. Basically, it means the carrot and the stick. Just think of the plethora of marketing messages you’re bombarded with every day. Half off, for a limited time only! Supplies limited! Buy two, get one free! These are anything that pushes consumers to buy – think clearance sales, advertising hype, and appeals to authority with claims like “Four out of five dentists prefer Trident.” Manipulation is a popular strategy – and it’s effective, too. The only problem is that it doesn’t work over the long haul.

That’s because manipulation doesn’t breed loyal customers. When you manipulate your customers, they come to you for the good deals, not because they like you. This becomes painfully visible in tough economic times; when you have to raise your prices, your customers will desert you for a better offer, because they never cared about you or your product in the first place. And why would they? You didn’t inspire them. You just incentivized them.

Okay, now let’s shift to the other side of the spectrum and talk about an inspirational company – let’s talk about Apple.

Apple presents us with a very interesting example – almost a mind-boggling one. Because, on the face of it, there’s really nothing special about the company. Apple is a corporate structure like any other. It makes computers, just like Dell and Toshiba do. It also makes phones, but so does Samsung. Sure, its products are beautifully designed and work seamlessly, but so do products that other companies make. Sometimes Apple does well, sometimes not so much, and when it comes to its products or business operations, there’s plenty of criticism out there. Maybe the most noteworthy knock on Apple is that it doesn’t really offer any good deals on its products. For $1000, you could get the new iPhone . . . or you could have two brand-new Samsungs that do almost exactly the same things – or even more. But look closely. Apple doesn’t pull any carrot-and-stick trickery. It doesn’t offer any incentives. But when a new iPhone is released, what happens? People go crazy for it. They don’t do that for Samsung’s phones.

It’s fair to say that Apple’s customers are so committed to their brand that they behave irrationally. So the big question here is: How does Apple pull that off?

The short answer is that Apple is inspirational. And here’s the somewhat longer one: customers deeply care about Apple because Apple starts with why. Or, as Sinek put it in his now-famous TED Talk, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Let’s dig a little deeper.

Apple and the Golden Circle

Northern California at the end of the sixties. There’s a spirit of protest and uprising making its way throughout the state – throughout the whole country, frankly – and revolution is in the air. Young people with flowers in their hair and the occasional joint in their mouth are radically questioning those in power. They don’t like the conformist, individuality-crushing ways that government and big corporations are run. In the crowd are two nerdy-looking young men, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, both of them filled with an anti-establishment spirit. They’re sucking up the energy and the values around them, and it’s in this historical context that Apple’s spiritual core takes shape.

While hippies are roaming the streets of San Francisco, another upheaval, quieter and less drug-fueled, is also taking place: the computer revolution. Technology is developing in leaps and bounds; gone are the days of computational devices that run on punch cards and take up entire rooms, and the arrival of the personal computer is drawing near. Suddenly, it seems realistic that every American will have their own personal device in their living room.

The two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, know that this is their chance. And it will be a game-changer. For the two Steves, computers aren’t a way to make money – that comes second. Instead, they’re a vehicle for fulfilling their deeper mission: empowering the individual and challenging the status quo. Put differently, Apple started with why, not with what or how.

Okay, at this point, let’s introduce you to Sinek’s key concept: the Golden Circle. It’s fascinating, and Sinek’s most influential idea to this day. It’s a pattern that naturally pops up in the success stories of all great leaders and thinkers, from Martin Luther King to the Wright Brothers to Apple. It explains why some brands are there for the long haul and some aren’t. And honestly? It’s pretty simple.

The Golden Circle is actually made up of three concentric circles. The why is the bull’s eye in the very center, the how is wrapped around that, and the what is in the outermost circle.

The Golden Circle is actually made up of three concentric circles. The why is the bull’s eye in the very center, the how is wrapped around that, and the what is in the outermost circle.

The what describes the activities of the business or organization. Usually, the what is pretty self-explanatory – say, manufacturing a product or offering certain services. The how illustrates the way the what is achieved: How do you handle everything? What is it that, for example, turns a particular manufacturing process or business culture into something special?

The why describes the mission of a business or organization. Why was it founded? What is its main goal?

So back to Apple. What’s Apple’s mission? You don’t have to look far – the company tells you right away: its purpose is to think different. Apple is there to challenge the status quo in creative ways and give power to the individual – remember, the two Steves developed these core values during the ’60s. Apple’s purpose isn’t to make computers or phones – that’s what it does. Sure, its computers and phones happen to embody its why, but that’s the result of the company following its higher cause, not the reason those products exist in the first place. Apple never started with what. It started with why.

So what makes the why so crucial? Well, it resonates on an emotional level. It speaks to a deep-seated human need to belong. People are drawn to individuals and organizations that share their core beliefs and values. They didn’t buy iPods because they were a good deal – they bought them because they shared Apple’s belief that challenging the status quo in a creative way is a purpose worth pursuing. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

That’s why they never bought Dell’s MP3 player, which was launched in 2003. Yes, Dell had the capacity to produce high-quality ones. But it just didn’t feel right. People could sense they just did it to get a foot in the market, not to fulfill a deeper mission. With the iPod, it all made sense: Apple likes to challenge the way things are done, and back then it was challenging the music industry. That’s just what Apple does, which made the move an authentic one, and that spoke to their customer’s core values. That’s why the iPod was a success and Dell’s MP3 player wasn’t.

There are other good reasons to figure out your company’s higher cause, too. When you start out as a company, you’re aiming for mass-market penetration. To achieve that, you first need to get your foot in the door. But how do you do that? Two types of customers are key here: innovators and early adopters. These are the kind of customers who love to be at the forefront of innovations. The geeks, the nerds, and the cool kids, in other words – the first ones who had an iPhone. Innovators and early adopters will go to great lengths to acquire a product that no one else has tried yet. And they’re drawn to visionary leaders and companies that know their why. Once you have the geeks on your side, things should get easier – they’ll spread the word about what you’re up to.

Here’s a last good reason to know your why: once you know your purpose, you’ll automatically attract those who share it. This is particularly important when it comes to hiring. You’ll be able to filter out the bystanders and freeloaders – those that are only in it for the money or for prestige. You’ll then be left with people who are inherently passionate about your mission. If you really start with your why, it’ll be easier to continue on with it once you have the right people on board.

How to start with why

Now, this all sounds pretty good, you might be thinking, and it wouldn’t actually be that hard to implement. After all, how hard can it be to know why you’re doing something? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than you might think.

Here’s the catch: Even though the why should be at the very center of any company, most founders and leaders actually don’t have a clue what their why is. They can tell you exactly what they do and how they do it, sure. But if you ask them why their company exists, a lot of them struggle to answer. They might mumble something about how they always wanted to start a company, or just admit they’re in for the money. Or maybe they’ll offer up something abstract about “making the world a better place.”

That’s a problem – a big one! Because if you don’t know the purpose of your company, why would anyone else care? And, maybe more importantly, how can you expect your employees to come to work with a sense of purpose if you don’t have one yourself? Why would anyone buy your products if they don’t understand what they stand for?

So this is the time to get practical. Sinek sprinkled some ideas about how throughout his book – just little tidbits here and there. We’ve gathered the three most useful points, ways for you as a leader to actually figure out and properly communicate your why.

So let’s begin with the first one: finding your why.

This is actually a tough one, so tough that Sinek wrote a whole other book about it called Find Your Why. Finding your purpose in life, or your company’s purpose, isn’t by any means easy. It can take a lifetime, and we can’t promise you’ll find your life’s purpose in a summary. But nonetheless, here’s a good piece of advice: If you want to find your purpose, investigate your past and try to find patterns there.

Ask yourself: What were you known for? How did friends, family, and coworkers perceive you – what did they notice that made you special? Often, the key to your purpose lies there. For example, in a time of struggle and failure, Sinek himself did some introspection and remembered that he was always seen as an eternal optimist. He was the one who would believe in others and inspire them to take action no matter the context. So now he’s dedicated his life to that – his why is to inspire others, just like he always used to do.

Once you’ve found your why, move on to step number two. That’s finding a way to clearly communicate your why. If you can’t, people won’t understand you. There are thousands of leaders who know what they want, but their companies never take off because they struggle to get the message across. From their perspective, others just don’t “get it.” Well, if you’re serious about your why, that’s not an option. No two ways about it: inspiring leaders have to know how to clearly communicate their why.

Here’s where we bring back the Golden Circle, which has the why in the center, the how in the middle, and the what in the outer ring. The key to inspiring leadership is to communicate from the inside out. Put simply, whatever you communicate, always start with why you do things. Then move on to how you do them before moving on to what exactly you do. Never go in the other direction, leaving your why for last. This is just as true for internal communications as it is for marketing messages.

Think about our MP3 player example. If Dell were to make another player, like most companies, it would probably start with what and then move on to how, something like “Hey, we made MP3-players with 25 gigabytes of internal storage, designed by top-notch engineers focused on user friendliness. Check them out!”

See what it would be doing there, though? First, the what gets mentioned – that is, players with 25 gigs of storage; then the pitch moves on to the how – Dell’s top-notch engineers. That’s how most companies communicate. Not very appealing, is it?

In contrast, when Apple launched the iPod, it put its why first. It said “We want to revolutionize how music is distributed and consumed.” Then it followed up with, “We made a device that can store a thousand songs and fits in your pocket” – the how. Based on that, if you wanted to, you could buy an iPod – the what. This is authentically inspiring. It speaks to who you want to be – to your beliefs. That’s what communicating from the inside out looks like – you start with why you do things.

So always get the order of your information right: why first, how second, and what third. This will help you attract not just the right customers, but also the right employees. To put it in very practical terms: Set up your job ads in a way that puts the why first. Blinkist itself is a good example. When you browse our open positions, you’ll read these two sentences first: “We’re on a mission to help people turn ordinary moments into extraordinary learning opportunities – anytime, anywhere. We inspire people to keep learning.“

Which brings us to our third tip: Get the right people to handle the how so you can concentrate on the why. As the leader of the company, you represent the why. As your company grows, there’s a risk that you’ll get lost in the nitty-gritty of everyday operations. Don’t do that. You’ll have to rely on senior executives who are driven by your vision to set up the infrastructure that will make your vision tangible. You won’t be able to manage everything. Remember, as a leader, your job is to inspire others to take action – not to do everything yourself. So focus your energy on your company’s why. Don’t let things get fuzzy. Regularly remind your employees why they started with the company in the first place and why they’re passionate about your mission. Communicate the why clearly, and everything else will follow.

Final Summary

Let’s wrap this summary up with an analogy, a little story about inspiration from Start With Why that we particularly liked. It’s an inspirational story about inspiration – seriously. Call it meta-inspiration if you like.

It’s the story of two medieval stonemasons at a large construction site. You go up to the first one and ask him if he likes his job. He says: “Well, it’s really a drag, if you want to know the truth. It’s burning hot in the sun and the work is back-breaking, just one stone after the other. And I don’t even know if I’ll live long enough to see the end result of what I’m doing here. So in short: no. I don’t like it at all.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Then you walk up to the second stonemason and ask him the same question.

He says, “Well, as you can imagine, it’s pretty monotonous, it’s hot and not particularly good for my lower back. I’ve been doing this for years now, and I don’t even know if I’ll live long enough to see the end result. But you know what, despite all the drudgery, I love it. It’s worthwhile, because I’m building a cathedral!”

Those two stonemasons are doing exactly the same work. But the second one does it with a sense of purpose. He knows what he’s doing it for – he’s building a cathedral. He’s inspired. And this is exactly your job as a leader: Remind everyone why they’re doing something. Give them cathedrals.

About the author

SIMON SINEK, the bestselling author of LEADERS EAT LAST and TOGETHER IS BETTER, is an optimist who believes in a brighter future for humanity. He teaches leaders and organizations how to inspire people and has presented his ideas around the world, from small startups to Fortune 50 corporations, from Hollywood to Congress to the Pentagon. His TED Talk based on START WITH WHY is the third most popular TED video of all time. Learn more about his work and how you can inspire those around you at StartWithWhy.com.

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