Simon Sinek: Celebrated public speaker, marketing maverick, motivational guru, and occasional neuroscience “expert”1. Most people who use social media on a regular basis would know about Sinek, having come across one or more videos of his speeches at various public speaking events.
In “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, presented at TEDxPugetSound, Sinek presents a model for inspirational leadership. He calls this the Golden Circle Model.
The general idea of this model is that leaders should start from the inside out: By asking ‘why’ first, Sinek believes that we can convey our motivations more powerfully, and thereby persuade our audience to empathize with our cause. Sinek raises three exemplars who start with why: Apple, Martin Luther King, and the Wright Brothers. He links the efficacy of ‘starting with why’ with neuroscience, claiming that we are biologically hardwired to identify with the ideology behind the offering, and not the offering itself. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it”2, Sinek proclaims. The audience was visibly impressed.
On the surface level, what Sinek is saying seems pretty self-evident. Every individual needs some semblance of a purpose to live a full and happy life. The theme of purpose runs through all ages and cultures: Aristotle, for instance, linked human flourishing (eudaimonia) directly with purpose (telos). Purpose can be more poetically spoken of as ikigai (“a reason to get up in the morning”) in Japanese, or raison d’être (a reason for existing) in French. In a slightly perverse sense, the need for purpose applies to businesses more fittingly than it does to humans: Humans suffer an instinctive drive for self-preservation (I get up in the morning because I’m hungry!) But the business entity per se is not a feeling thing, and is ambivalent to its own survival. Without a driving mission to organize decisions around, the business entity will soon lose competitiveness and become obsolete.
It is therefore imperative to think hard about what your business’ purpose is. To this end, Sinek’s talk offers valuable guidance:
1. Start with defining a business mission/vision
Most people have an inkling of why they do what they do. And as Sinek adroitly points out, it’s not money. Money is simply a means to a further end, and it is that end we should be thinking hard about.
Formalizing the business mission holds several benefits for the business. We’re not talking about yet another lousy mission statement that functions as a corporate front. We’re talking about expressing intangible ideas into words, struggling with the words until they strike a chord, until they feel just right. Once this is done, your mission statement can serve as:
- A reminder in times of personal doubt.
- A driving principle for your team members to refer back to.
- A hinge for you to convey your business story in a heartfelt way.
- A starting point for long-term decision making.
- A means for identifying ideal audience groups.
2. Begin your marketing messages with why
As Sinek says, you have to sell your problem first before you can even think about selling a solution. But this is not all: Most people are resistant to change. And most people are constantly flooded with more information and choices than they need. It’s easy to come up with a purpose. But if you fail to convert this purpose into a pain point, or fail to make this pain point resound with your target audience, then don’t expect them to give you the time of the day. To convince your target audience successfully, you must know them from the inside out. Find out what makes them tick. If not, create something that makes them tick.
3. Delineate your target audience groups
What kind of audience does your business ikigai implicate? The centrality of why means that it is crucial to define your target group on the basis of this why. Different kinds of people have different needs, purposes, and concerns. In other words, they respond differently to the same stimulus. It is therefore worthwhile to consider how different people may respond to your why, and how you can pitch your why in varying ways.
Objections? (Hint: there are plenty)
It’s perhaps a little ironic that, as an acclaimed marketing expert, Sinek’s speech faces opposition from members of certain communities who should, in principle, agree with him. Here’s a rundown of some of the disagreements:
- An experienced salesperson says: Why is important, but only if you get across the preliminary hurdle of who3. Most of us are receptive to information that comes from a place of authority. Whether this information is true isn’t of concern here – there is no place for truth in the court of public opinion. What you say only counts if you’re deemed to be sufficiently credible by the masses.
- A CEO coach says: Start with who – not who is making the delivery, but who the audience is.4 Nothing comes of self-centered egotism and idealistic beliefs. Knowing what your audience really want is imperative to success.
- An executive speech coach says: Sinek employs rhetorical devices to make himself sound more convincing: He gives punchy labels to things we already know, and repeats them several times to drive the message home.5 But powerful speakers are also dangerous speakers – they can commit sophistry without our notice. Is Sinek right? To investigate the truth-content of his speech, we must first peel away the layers of rhetoric obscuring it.
Who’s Right? You Judge!
What Sinek says seems to be reasonable with respect to Apple: Most of us do not buy an iPhone just because it has great features. When the first iPhone came out in 2007, we bought it because it was something new, something innovative, and something which promised to reinvent the way we use mobile technology. We continued buying it because we’ve bought into the comforts of familiarity and conformity.
But Sinek’s speech is otherwise full of fallacies. Let’s break it down:
- Sweeping generalization : Apple’s case is just one amongst many. Do all (or most) other successful businesses necessarily begin with asking why?
- Weak anecdotes: What was the why of the Wright brothers? Did Samuel Pierpont Langley, the Wright brothers’ competitor, not have a why ? If they both had a why, was one why wrong and the other right? How?
- Causal fallacy: : It’s plausible that asking why is a necessary condition for success. But why assume that it’s also a sufficient condition?
- Essentialism: Is asking why the most important factor for success?, Why not, say, the presence of a visionary leader? A dedicated team? Or just pure, sheer luck?
- Confirmation bias: We all like to hear success stories. But asking Steve Jobs for advice on building a business is like asking a plane crash survivor for advice on how to survive a crash. We don’t hear from those who have never achieved success. What can they teach us?
- Rhetoric over content: A why is only an empty label if it lacks substance.
- Appeal to authority: In arguing for starting with why , Sinek says that ‘It’s all grounded in the tenets of biology.’ But the biological evidence he provides are – according to an assistant professor in genetics and evolutionary biology – “weak at best[,] if not outright falsehoods”.
”Philosophers As Early As Socrates And Plato Have Warned Of Sophistry – The Use Of Fallacious Reasoning For Unscrupulous Ends.
Where does this leave us? We’d like to suggest that point (d) is more relevant to personal and business success than most would think. Lots of people get ticked off when their achievements are attributed to luck. What, are you saying that the reason my business is thriving today is not of my own doing?
No. Apart from admirable personal attributes and hard work, there is often a myriad of external influences which people do not care to think about. We can use ‘luck’ as a placeholder for these influences.
Let’s break this down again.
Digression: The case of Semmelweis, and the Non-incidental Coincidence
To understand how ‘luck’ can powerfully shape our lot in life, let’s turn to a case study. In Vienna, 1846, there was a young physician who worked in the maternity divisions of the city’s general hospital. There were two maternity clinics in that hospital, and each clinic admitted expectant mothers on alternate days. Both clinics were similar in the way they operated, except for one strange difference: Women who delivered their babies in the first clinic were more than twice as likely to contract a deadly illness known as puerperal fever as compared to women in the second clinic. The first clinic became so notorious that women would rather deliver in the streets than be admitted.
The young physician was greatly perplexed by this. To uncover the reason behind this phenomena, he started picking apart the perceptible differences between the two clinics, isolating them and testing them in turn to see if any of these factors would have an influence on the mortality rate. The breakthrough came when one of his friends died after displaying symptoms of puerperal fever, after he was punctured by a scalpel that was used to perform a post mortem examination. The young physician hypothesized that “cadaveric matter” on the scalpel must have led to his friend’s death. The hypothesis was supported by the fact that the first clinic was run by medical students who attended to the women straight after performing autopsies (the second clinic, on the other hand, was ran by midwives). Upon implementing a hand-washing regime in the first clinic, the mortality rate fell drastically, even dipping below that of the second clinic in 1848.
In fact, puerperal fever is spread not by “cadaveric matter”, but by germs. This is so obvious to us now that it sounds trite, but this was not the case for 19th century physicians, for whom the miasma theory was still the dominant theory of disease transfer. The young physician’s discovery was thus groundbreaking on two accounts: Firstly, while germs have yet to enter the medical vocabulary, what the young physician discovered was at least enough to dispel the notion that miasma, or “bad air”, was responsible for the spread of disease. Secondly, the young physician employed a form of hypothetico-deductive method in making his discovery. This method of scientific enquiry continues to be used today.
The name of this young physician is Ignaz Semmelweis.7 But few in his lifetime knew his name, and even fewer knew about his work in antisepsis. Semmelweis missed the paradigm shift in epidemiology by just a few years – the year he died (1865) was, ironically, also the year in which another medical man, Joseph Lister, first began testing his antiseptic system without any overt influence from Semmelweis. Lister later became recognized as the pioneer of antisepsis. What caused the divergence in the two men’s fate? Part of Semmelweis’ failure might have been his own doing – he lacked certain social niceties, did not like to write or publish academically, and could not refrain from praising himself.8 On the other hand, it is also undeniable that his theory just did not fit into the scientific framework of his time. It was too jarringly different from the prevailing medical beliefs, which contributed to his contemporaries’ vilification of him.
The Semmelweis Monument In Budapest, Sculpted By The Hungarian Sculptor Alojs Stróbl In 1906.
Dispelling Sinek: There is No Golden Formula to Success
If Apple, Martin Luther King, and the Wright Brothers started with a purpose, then so did Semmelweis. In fact, the purpose taken on by Semmelweis was as significant, if not more so, than the purposes taken on by those cited by Sinek: Semmelweis started with a clearly defined why and ended with a statistically-corroborated because , and saved many lives in the process. But he wasn’t recognised during his lifetime. He would have remained unrecognized had the scientific paradigm not shifted in favor of the germ theory of disease.
Success is an evaluative term. There is no boiling it down to one or two simple factors. It is, rather, a huge complex of different factors working together, producing synergistic effects which we come to recognize as ‘wealth’, or ‘fame’. More than we recognize, success also depends on the zeitgeist of the time. The zeitgeist affords us one way to think about why some of the most celebrated historical figures only achieve fame posthumously – these were the innovators of their times, but their lives came and went much too quickly and much too soon for us to fully recognize their worth.
And this is where Sinek’s speech goes awry: while he may have been well-meaning in proposing his golden-circle model as a principle of leadership, his speech gives the impression that to be successful, there are certain things which you must do. The fact that he chose innovators and disturbers of the status quo as examples easily leads the audience into the mistaken impression that “If X → Y, then Y → X” (successful innovators had a purpose; having a purpose will make me successful). But not everyone with a purpose will be able to achieve that purpose, and not all innovators will be recognized in their lifetime. Just look no further than Semmelweis, Van Gogh, Kafka, Galileo, and a whole host of other scientists, artists, authors, poets, and musicians.
The bottom line is this: There is no golden formula to success. Not in your personal life, nor in your professional life. Even if we do manage to find a perfect cocktail of the different success factors, there is still no telling how the people around us would respond. Where does this leave us then? Starting with why may be a good guiding principle for helping us identify our goals. But is this alone going to make us successful, à la Apple, Martin Luther King, or the Wright Brothers? Statistically speaking – probably not.
 For a full account of Semmelweis’ case in relation to scientific enquiry, see Chapter 2 of Carl Hempel’s Philosophy of Natural Science (1966). Gillies, D. (2005). Hempelian and Kuhnian approaches in the philosophy of medicine: the Semmelweis case. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 36(1), pp.159-181.