Start With WHY by Simon Sinek: Book Summary

Don't have time to read Start With WHY by Simon Sinek? Here's a book summary part by part.
Natalia Rossingol

Think about this situation: Two companies have equal resources, equal access to media and opportunities to hire talents; yet one company fails, and the other stays afloat, and even prospers. Why is that? Coincidence? Evil fate? Probably not. If we put these two companies on imaginary scales, we will see that one is heavier than the other – because there is something special about it.   

Back in 2002 Simon Sinek, now a motivational speaker, was a businessman owning a consulting firm. At some point of his career he realized that something went wrong; he felt trapped. To improve the state of things, Sinek started looking for the reasons for his demotivation, analyzing the experiences of those who managed to build successful businesses - and even to have a significant impact on the world. Sinek noticed that all big leaders were unique (indeed, Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs had little in common), but they used the same approach: they all started with WHY. The knowledge he discovered inspired Sinek, and he decided to share it in a book “Start With Why”, as well as at numerous public events.

Below you can read a “Start With WHY” summary by chapter, and learn more about Sinek’s ideas:

📖 PART 1. A World That Doesn’t Start With a Why

Decision is a fundamental thing on which all the activities and future of the company depend. It determines every little step taken and the actual result. The problem is, says Sinek, that often we have no idea what exactly drives our decisions.

We collect as much data as possible; we read literature; we attend conferences and ask our colleagues. And yet, there is no guarantee we make the right decision – something can still be missing. Even more, if we achieve what we want, it doesn’t mean the success will repeat again; it could be a one-time luck.

One the other hand, sometimes you ignore all advice and listen to the voice of your intuition, and things work out just fine. So what shall we do?

The problem is, says Sinek, that we make too many assumptions. We assume we’re successful because our product has good quality, or because it is better than the competitor’s product – in fact, saying that means admitting you know nothing about what you do.

It’s not the best idea to make decisions based on assumptions since they are often incomplete or flawed. In fact, business owners and leaders should not assume, says Sinek, but think about this: what is the driving force for their decisions? How do you actually influence your employees and clients? 

And it is easy to figure out: there are only two ways to influence human behavior – through manipulation and inspiration, says Sinek.      

Manipulation has been widely used in business for years. It is effective but in the long run, it can lead to negative consequences. Manipulative techniques include the following:

Pricing. Dropping the prices, you can lure many potential clients in. However, if they get used to paying lower than average, they will probably refuse to pay more. This can create problems for the company.

Promotion. The principle here is the same: offering things for free (like carrying cases or memory cards), you try to make people give their preferences to you. Again, what if they start taking it for granted?

Fear. Fear is the most powerful way of manipulation, as it appeals to basic human instincts. It is used to persuade clients they will face problems choosing competitors. For example, politicians manipulate with fear when they say their opponents will raise taxes.

The danger can be not real, but fear does work. Sinek uses the following comparison: if a person with a banana in his pocket tried to rob a bank, he would still be charged with armed robbery because the law considers the belief that the person has a gun. The belief is what matters - and the belief is caused by fear.

Aspirations. Offering clients a product or service which can help them achieve their dream sounds noble – but in fact, it is a true manipulation. You cannot get a happier life in “six steps” – this is a short-term response to a long-term desire, as the author puts it, and it will not get you anywhere.

Peer pressure. People often doubt themselves and tend to believe that others know things better.  If a salesman tells you that 70 percent of your competitors use a particular service, you will probably buy it. But think about it: maybe they were offered a lower price? Or even worse, maybe they are just idiots? 

Novelty. When a company adds new features to a product, it is not innovation – it’s a novelty. There are thirty-two types of Colgate toothpaste – and their competitors don’t really fall behind. This is not bad but it confuses clients and doesn’t add any long-term value.

All things considered, Sinek says that manipulations are a serious obstacle preventing business from development:

The danger of manipulations is that they work. And because manipulations work, they have become the norm, practiced by the vast majority of companies and organizations, regardless of size or industry... With every price drop, promotion, fear-based or aspirational message, and novelty we use to achieve our goals, we find our companies, our organizations and our systems getting weaker and weaker... But there is an alternative.

📖 PART 2. An Alternative Perspective

Instead of manipulating, some leaders choose to inspire. Whether these are individuals or organizations, they use exactly the same approach to motivate people, following a particular pattern. The author calls this pattern the Golden Circle.

The Golden Circle, inspired by the golden ratio which is “a mathematical formula for proportion and even beauty”, consists of three components: WHAT, HOW, and WHY. The thing is, most people know what they do; and they know how to do it. But only a few ask themselves why they actually do what they do:

When I say WHY, I don't mean to make money—that's a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?

Sinek continues that in order to work, the Golden Circle needs to be in balance. The things providing balance are clarity of WHY (believing in something bigger), discipline of HOW (principles and systems helping bring ideas to life), and consistency of WHAT (products, services, employees etc). And again, he repeats that once WHY goes fuzzy, there is no more space for growth.

An important thing to remember about the Golden Circle is that the order matters: you always need to start with WHY, as it provides the context and assures a long-lasting result.

To illustrate how WHY functions, Sinek tells a story of Southwest Airlines, which became “a business folklore.” In the early 1970-s, only 15 percent of the population traveled by air. Southwest decided to focus on the rest, and give them the opportunity to travel – faster than by bus and by car, and for cheap, so that people could afford it. This was their WHY.

To do so, they had to change the policies already accepted in the industry: to be an airline for the common man, Southwest had to be cheap, unlike other companies; they had to be fun – no suits and ties on a plane required, as it was usual at that time; and they had to be simple, making it easier to book tickets. These steps were their HOW.

Having a clear understanding of their goal, and choosing the right strategy to achieve it, Southwest became one of the most profitable airlines in history, surviving after September 11 and other crises.

📖 PART 3. Leaders Need a Following

Leadership always means a crowd of followers. But there is a difference between being a leader and leading, says Sinek: in the first case, people follow you because you hold the highest rank, while in the second case – they follow you willingly. So how can you earn the privilege to actually lead the crowd?

It all boils down to trust. And trust emerges when people feel that behind the actions of a boss or an organization there is something more than just self-gain; when they feel protected and cared for. It emerges when people feel that a boss is accessible – when the executive offices are not off limits, when there are no security guards everywhere. Only then will they demonstrate reciprocal behavior, emphasizes Sinek.

Besides, trust can be formed in environments with strong cultures, where people feel like they belong to that place. Sinek emphasizes that the human race survived and evolved not because we have been the strongest – but because we have been able to develop cultures. Roughly speaking, culture is a set of values and beliefs. And if we share values and beliefs, we start to trust each other.

Hiring people, you have to find those who relate with your culture, and who are passionate about you WHY, says Sinek. Southwest Airlines, which, as we remember, tried to become a company for common people, decided to dress their flight attendants in tight pants and go-go boots. Then they realized that the only people they recruited were cheerleaders and majorettes – these were the only ones who dared put that stuff on. However, they perfectly fit the company’s culture, spreading optimism and cheering people up – in other words, they perfectly spread the company’s WHY.  

Great companies don't hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them… Unless you give motivated people something to believe in, something bigger than their job to work toward, they will motivate themselves to find a new job and you'll be stuck with whoever's left.

Trust should be developed not only between bosses and employees, says Sinek; the same concerns relationships between companies and clients. According to the Law of Diffusion, you can achieve mass-marker success only after you penetrate between 15 to 18 percent of it. For your business to grow, these 15-18 percent of customers must be loyal to you. And to make them loyal, you need to communicate your WHY so that they are not simply willing to buy your products, but actually ready to suffer inconveniences, if necessary, to stay with you.

📖 PART 4. How to Rally Those Who Believe

Let’s go back to the Golden Circle. In fact, it needs to be three-dimensional, says the author; it needs to be a cone. A cone is a representation of an organization, which is by nature a hierarchical structure. At the top of it, there is a leader, and this is the WHY level. The next level down is the HOW level, and here we’ve got executives who know HOW to bring to life the leader’s ideas. WHAT are the results of these actions.

A leader determines the destination, while executives determine the route to it. Logically, leaders should be visionaries, and executives – down-to-earth people, realists living here and now, getting things done. 

Most people are HOW-types, says Sinek. Even though many leaders consider themselves visionaries, when you ask them what they really like about being a leader, the answer will be – building things. But that is a feature of a HOW-type. This is why many companies, even if they do pretty well, do not change the world:

Most companies, no matter how well built, do not become billion-dollar businesses or change the course of industries. To reach the billion-dollar status, to alter the course of an industry, requires a very special and rare partnership between one who knows WHY and those who know HOW.

So what does a WHY-type look like? Bill Gates is a shy and awkward person, and definitely not the most energetic public speaker. But not only can he motivate the crowd; he can inspire it. Why does this happen? Because Gates is incredibly charismatic. 

As Sinek points out, “Charisma is hard to define, nearly impossible to measure and too elusive to copy” – but all great leaders have it because all clearly know their WHY. Gates wanted people to become more productive and use their potential, seeing a computer as a perfect technology that could make it possible. His WHY was crystal clear.

However, even if you have a clear vision, it is crucially important to let people hear you. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey gave a free car to every person who was in her studio. Actually, the whole thing was about marketing Pontiac’s new car – but no one can even remember what model it was, even though they donated $7 million dollars. This happened because the idea was missing – Pontiac didn’t communicate their WHY. As a result, people remember Oprah but not Pontiac. 

📖 PART 5. The Biggest Challenge is Success

There is a difference between achievement and success, says Sinek. Achievement is close to a goal – it is something you can reach, tangible and measurable. Achievement happens when you get WHAT you want. Success is more like a state, and it comes when you clearly see WHY you want something. The problem is, we often mistake one for the other, taking achievements for real success.  

While building business or career, we become more confident producing the results (our WHAT), and become experts in HOW we do it – and at the same time, we forget WHY we started all this in the first place. Ironically, success can become a serious obstacle - once you get it, you relax and focus on achievements. With many different responsibilities a leader assumes, he may stop seeing his true purpose – and sharing it with others:

As the organization grows, as it becomes more successful, it becomes physically impossible for one person to make every major decision. Not only must others be trusted and relied upon to make big decisions, but those people will also start making hiring choices. And slowly but surely, as the megaphone grows, the clarity of WHY starts to dilute.

According to Sinek, both WHY and HOW are critical, and if either of them disappears, business will start deteriorating. If you lose WHY, you will still be able to produce goods or services, but they will lack meaning. If you lose HOW, you will have no structure, and passion without a structure will probably lead you to a failure. He calls this phenomenon “split”, emphasizing that the Golden Circle needs to be a unity.

A good example of a split is Starbucks. It became so popular not simply because the coffee was delicious but because of the experience it offered to the customers. Howard Shultz, Starbucks ex-CEO, fell in love with Italian coffee shops and decided to bring this idea to the United States. His WHY was clear, and one of the small details helping create the environment where people could relax between home and work was ceramic cups and plates. However, ceramic crockery was expensive, and the company switched to paper cups. Sinek jokes that this gesture sounded like “We love you, now get out”. This saved money, but lost trust – because WHY was gone.

A split can also happen as a result of losing the inspiring leader – because at some point, the leader can leave or die. For this reason, WHY needs to be integrated into the culture of the company. Everyone must see something bigger, see beyond profit. The new leader coming in place must be just as inspired and ready to spread his passion. 

📖 PART 6. Discover WHY

So where did the WHY come from? The theory of the Golden Circle was the result of long personal struggles the author himself went through. When he started his business, he was incredibly excited. Even though the statistics said that over 90 percent of businesses failed in the first three years, his business didn’t – and this made him feel very proud. However, during the fourth year, he lost his drive – it was not a passionate race anymore, just business.

Sinek became paranoid, accusing himself of being less smart than his competitors, and persuading himself that no one liked him, and that his clients thought he was a fraud. So he decided to do a little analysis and try to figure out why some businesses thrived, and others didn’t. Why had Apple been outmarketing their competitors?

He focused on the strategies that did work, realizing that all successful companies had something in common. It didn’t even take much time to find the recipe of success – his Golden Circle. He understood that his own problem was a loss of WHY. He got obsessed with WHY, and eventually started sharing this technique.

An important conclusion Sinek made was that the biggest competition a business should have is a competition with oneself. We are always comparing ourselves to others, trying to be better than them, providing better quality and so on. But what if we shift our focus, and try to become better than we were yesterday? What if our goal was to make our company more prosperous than it was before we joined? Actually, having a competition with yourself means having a clear idea of your WHY: this is your values, and your game, after all. And if you start with a WHY, more doors will be open in front of you:

Imagine if every organization started with WHY. Decisions would be simpler. Loyalties would be greater. Trust would be a common currency. If our leaders were diligent about starting with WHY, optimism would reign and innovation would thrive.

 

As we can see from this “Start With WHY” book summary, Simon Simnek teaches us that making a lot of money doesn’t mean being an outstanding businessman. It doesn’t mean you will still make this same amount in a year either. It may sound paradoxical but true success comes when you forget about money and focus on something else. Caring about your people – employees, colleagues, clients etc, and offering them something that really has an idea behind it, you can make a difference. This is how you earn trust and loyalty. This is how companies change the world.

📚 Read other book summaries on management from Runn:

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