Book review: “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action” by Simon Sinek
Thirty years ago, Colgate had two brands of toothpaste. Today, it has 32, excluding the four they make for children.
Does this mean that Colgate is selling thirty times more toothpaste that it did in 1970?
If you go to a supermarket or pharmacy, you’ll find at least one of the 32 types of Colgate toothpaste are on promotion or special offer. What does that say about the company?
In his book “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action“, Simon Sinek calls this a manipulation: ”There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.”
Don’t you dare manipulate me
This idea of manipulation, so Sinek says, has been a tactic used by marketers (and leaders and human beings) since the beginning of time:
“From business to politics, manipulations run rampant in all forms of sales and marketing. Typical manipulations include: dropping the price; running a promotion… When companies or organizations do not have a clear sense of why their customers are their customers, they tend to rely on a disproportionate number of manipulations to get what they need.”
Manipulations work, of course they do, but they weaken a brand. They are a short-term fix for longer-term issues: “Manipulations are a perfectly valid strategy for driving a transaction, or for any behaviour that is only required once or on rare ocassions.”
The golden circle
I first came across Sinek through his TED talk (see below) which is currently flying high in the most watched TED league table.
In the book, the manipulation/inspiration segment serves as an hors d’oeuvres to the meat of the matter – the golden circle – and it is this that is also the prime focus of the TED video.
The concept behind Sinek’s golden circle is fairly simple. Companies like Colgate that define themselves by what they do (make toothpaste) and not why they do it, focus all their innovation on products and services – make more, make it better:
“If you are curious as to how Colgate finds itself with thirty-two different types of toothpaste today, it is because every day its people come to work to develop a better toothpaste and not, for example, to look for ways to help people feel more confident about themselves.”
Tell me why
The golden circle is an awful name but, in his defence, comes from the fact it stems from the golden ratio. The chief concept, which Sinek bangs home throughout the book like a leitmotif-cum-sledgehammer (with capitalisation for added pushing-down-your-throat) is that “people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”
He talks about how a sense of why appeals to your limbic brain – the part of the brain that doesn’t have the capacity for language, but is responsible for feelings. We might rationalise with the what and the how part of the circle but it is the why that appeals to our limbic brain and gives us the sense of something just being right in our gut, but hard to put into words.
Colgate is just one of the many case studies that appear to illustrate this central point although Apple is the one that Sinek keeps coming back to. For me, this is a bit disappointing and becomes almost tiresome. It is very easy to see how Apple fits into the golden circle (as does Martin Luther King Jr. – another of his go-to examples) and it’s possibly too easy for it to really resonate.
Inspiration from the top down
The book is advertised as more of a leadership than a marketing manual and it is in the latter stages of the book that this really comes across. The circle becomes a cone and the what/how/why illustrate parts of an organisation with the leader at the top (e.g. Steve Jobs and MLK) driving the sense of why throughout the organisation:
“Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them.”
From a social perspective, I like how Sinek refers to the cone as becoming a megaphone:
“An organisation effectively becomes the vessel through which a person with a clear purpose, cause or belief can speak to the outside world. But for a megaphone to work, clarity must come first. Without a clear message, what will you amplify?”
I bang on about employees being a company’s best advocate when it comes to social media and Sinek’s cone/megaphone illustrates the point that, if you make this a priority, then you need to ensure that your employees are pulling in the same direction. You need to ensure they are motivated and inspired to communicate your sense of why to your audience.
Why do you exist?
Overall, I think there is a lot for businesses and marketers in the digital age to learn from this book. Having watched the TED video, there is sometimes a sense that most of the meat of the argument is contained in it and at times the book becomes slightly repetitive.
But I think there is enough added value contained within it to give it a read.
Next time you go shopping for toothpaste – or have an interaction with any brand come to that – think about whether you have a clear sense of why this brand exists. If you struggle to find what it is then you’ll probably also find your sense of affinity to that brand is equally weak.
-- ends --