Simon Sinek’s first TED talk, “Start with Why?”, explored how great leaders inspire action. It has gathered more than 29 million views on TED.com and been subtitled in 43 languages.
Sinek, an author, public speaker and leadership consultant, is fascinated by leaders: those women and men with the capacity to inspire others; the ones who make an impact in their organisations and the world. He has discovered some remarkable patterns about how leaders think, act and communicate, and the environments in which people operate at their natural best.
His unconventional views on business and leadership have earned him invitations to meet with leaders at an array of organisations, including Disney, jetBlue airline, KPMG, Pfizer, NBC, government agencies and entrepreneurs. He has also shared his ideas at the United Nations, the United States Congress and with the senior leadership of the United States Air Force, Marine Corps, Army and Navy, as well as Special Forces Agencies.
Here he shares some of his insights in an interview with AIM CEO David Pich.
DAVID PICH: Why do individuals grapple with finding purpose, inspiration and fulfilment?
SIMON SINEK: The part of the brain that controls inspiration and vision is called the limbic brain. It controls all of our feelings, but doesn’t have any capacity for language. This is why we trust our gut, even though why we do that can’t put it into words.
The part of the brain that controls language and rational thought is called our neocortex. It doesn’t control our feelings or behaviour. So there is this complication of articulating our sense of purpose and what inspires us and fulfils us. It’s simply a biological problem.
This is why I advocate telling stories. Ask yourself at what point in your favourite movie do you get goosebumps and at what point in your favourite book do you start crying? Although we struggle to put what motivates and inspires us into words, we can tell stories that will allow us to better exemplify it.
Leadership and how we act in tribes and socialise hasn’t changed in 50,000 years, only our environment has.
DP: You link your discussion of leadership with the idea of human evolution. Why did you drill down to this level of investigation?
SS: I like everything explained to me. Little kids always ask “why, why, why?” and that’s me. I’m dissatisfied with just pointing to examples. Everybody says a good strong corporate culture has to have trust. I agree with that, but what does that even mean? Usually people show you case studies of a company that did well because people trust each other. I don’t dispute that, but when you keep asking the question ‘why’ you keep going backwards and you get past case studies and inevitably you end up at the dawn of man.
And I realised that everything in our lives – the way we act, the way we behave, our physiology – is all purpose built, the result of evolution. So leadership and how we act in tribes and socialise hasn’t changed in 50,000 years, only our environment has. So when you ask the question ‘why’ enough, it takes you back to the beginning.
DP: You write about the self-help industry just helping itself rather than others, yet self-help books are popular because people are always seeking answers for their lives and their careers. Do these books actually help people?
SS: It’s a little like the diet industry. If the diets it proposes worked, then the industry would be over. At the end of the day the problem is that there’s an entire section in the bookshop called ‘self help’, but there’s no section in the bookshop called ‘help others’. The irony is that [self help] doesn’t work because we are so caught up with helping ourselves when true fulfilment, true joy in life, comes from service to others.
DP: Is that why you say that leadership is a choice and not a rank?
SS: Leadership is not about being in charge but taking care of people in our charge. It’s a service to be given, not a rank to be obtained. Good leaders understand the role is about taking care of others and not just about achieving rank and taking care of yourself.
DP: You’ve had exposure to leadership in the military – isn’t that a very hierarchical leadership environment?
SS: People watch too many movies. They think military life is all command and control, and like any organisation there are elements of this. But if it’s all about autocracy those units will struggle.
The best performing military units are about trust and delegation. Very young people are given huge amounts of responsibility, way more than they would if they were in the corporate world. At the end of the day they are taught to take care of each other. And that’s why it works.
The title of my book Leaders Eat Last came from a conversation I had with a Marine. When I asked him what makes the Marines so good at what they do, he looked at me and said simply: “Officers eat last.”
When you visit any chow hall on any Marine base anywhere in the world, when it comes time to eat they line up in rank order: the most junior Marine eats first, the most senior Marine eats last. No order was given to do that; it’s not in any instruction manual. It’s one of the ways their view on leadership comes to life. Just as you feed your children before yourself, so too will the officers feed the enlisted ranks before themselves.
DP: When you distil it down to that level, it appears that there’s such a disconnect between our personal relationships and our work relationships.
SS: I’m tired of people saying: “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.” Business is one of the most personal things in the world. It’s about trust, cooperation, human relationships. It’s about spending time with ‘these people’ than your own family. And the better we get along and the more personal it becomes, the better the company performs. There’s no difference between work and home; the only difference is the clothes you wear and the table you sit at.
TOXIC CORPORATE CULTURE
DP: In your book you point out that when Ronald Reagan sacked all the US air traffic controllers in the 1980s it somehow gave corporates ‘permission’ to start mass redundancies, a pattern that has continued ever since, whenever the economy wavers.
SS: The reality is that too many of our standardised business models today are leftovers from the 1980s and 1990s. The use of mass layoffs to balance the books didn’t exist in the mainstream until the 1980s, but now it’s so normal we don’t even think it’s a problem. The concept of shareholder supremacy, where we prioritise the needs of an external constituency over the needs of our people, is like a coach trying to build up a strong team by prioritising the needs of the fans over players.
We have had unbalanced corporate cultures where the primary means for incentivising people is through bonuses. So putting numbers aside to take care of and protect people from bad economies has gone by the wayside. Many of these investment banks have literally created environments where all employees are addicted to perform, to make the numbers. They will waste time and waste money and destroy relationships. They will stab people in the back, break laws to get their bonus, because that’s their only sense of achievement.
So all of these theories that were being experimented with in the ’80s and ’90s have now become normalised, except for the fact that these aren’t the same boom years. This is not a time of relative peace, and there’s the added complications of globalisation and the internet. What worked then, cannot work now.
DP: You point out that there have been three major stockmarket corrections since 1987 but we don’t seem to be learning from them. We still keep getting it wrong, even though there seems to be a general understanding that if there’s more cooperation things will work better.
SS: It took us 15 to 20 years to normalise the business model to what it is today. If trust and cooperation in business were the norm, then there should be no demand for my work, but the fact that there is, is proof that people sense these things are missing in their companies and they are starting to ask questions and demand them.
Folks like me are out there banging the drum but I’m looking for a courageous leader who is willing to change the way they are leading their businesses and prioritise people over numbers. It will take 15 to 20 years to put business right again. The irony is if it’s good for business it’s good for the shareholders.
DP: People do seem to be beginning to realise this, but then events such as the global financial crisis come along and people begin to get frightened and start shoring up their defences again.
SS: How capitalism is supposed to work is that you take care of people and people will take care of the business, but when you prioritise numbers over people, they will not take of the business, they will take care of themselves.
It’s amazing how we are destroying corporate cultures. Use of mass layoffs is like cheating on a spouse. Years of trust can be destroyed in a single act. And it takes a huge amount of energy to bring that trust back. Companies do it every single year, and it’s not to save a sinking ship but to meet their arbitrary projections.
So when you do it annually it creates an environment where literally trust cannot survive. And you have this underlying stress where people believe they could lose their jobs if they make a mistake or have substandard performance, as opposed to getting coached. If your kid comes home with a bad grade you don’t put them up for adoption.
“Use of mass layoffs is like cheating on a spouse. Years of trust can be destroyed in a single act.”
Here’s a real life example of how trust works. I was staying at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas, which is a wonderful hotel and not because they have comfortable beds (any hotel can buy a comfortable bed); it’s because of the people who work there.
When you walk down the hall, people say hello to you and I got the distinct feeling that they want to say hello to you, not that they were told to.
There’s a coffee bar in the lobby and one afternoon I went to buy a cup of coffee. The barista’s name was Noah, and he was fantastic, funny and engaging, So I asked him: ‘Do you like your job?’ And he said. ‘I love my job’. It’s not the sort of thing you hear very often. So I asked him, ‘What is the Four Seasons doing that makes you say that?’ And without skipping a beat Noah said, ‘Throughout the day managers will walk past me and ask me how I’m doing and if there’s anything I need to do my job better. Not just my manager, any manager.’
He went on to say he also works at Caesar’s Palace, where managers walk past to see if he’s doing everything right and to catch him if he’s doing something wrong. When he’s there he likes to keep his head below the radar to get through the day and collect his pay. It’s the same person, yet the customer interaction will be totally the opposite. The only difference is the leadership environment.
I’m tired of leaders telling me: “I have got to get the right leaders on the bus.” You have to lead properly. You have to create the right environment on the bus.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
DP: What business do you think has great leadership?
SS: Barry-Wehmiller is a great example. It has about US$3 billion in revenue and 8000 employees. It’s not a small company. And if you ask the CEO Bob Chapman what does the company do, the company happens to be in manufacturing but he doesn’t say that. He says: “We build great people to do extraordinary things.” He’s committed to his people.
The company suffered badly in the 2008 recession and lost 30 per cent of its orders. And as is so common nowadays, the board got together to suggest layoffs.
Chapman refused. Instead, he implemented a furlough program where every employee had to take four weeks of unpaid vacation, whenever they wanted, and they didn’t have to take those weeks off consecutively.
And it was how he announced the program. He said, “It was better that we all suffer a little rather than any of us should have to suffer a lot.” Morale went up. And good luck trying to steal their employees because they won’t leave because they feel safe and cared for by their leadership, as opposed to disposable by their leadership.
DP: In the political landscape there seems to be a crisis of leadership. People have lost trust in the mainstream politicians.
SS: It’s not that we don’t like mainstream politicians, it’s that we don’t like politics today. We are totally fine with politicians if they are good people. Nobody is inherently anti-politician; we are anti-dysfunction. We are voting for the outsiders, not because we like them but because we are sick of the way the system is. It’s not about being an outsider, it’s about changing the way we do business.
DP: Do people need to support political mavericks because they believe the system is broken?
SS: I live in America where our politics are embarrassing these days and I’m ashamed. I’m now through with criticising politicians and am now of the opinion that we get the politicians we deserve. Politics is a mirror of our society. If we are criticising their selfishness, their divisiveness and their short-termism, well guess what – that’s us.
We are short-termists, the divided ones. We are the complainers, the narcissists. It’s not until we take some responsibility for the way we act, treat each other and lead our companies, that we will ever get a chance to complain about our politicians.
We get the politicians we deserve – they are a reflection of us. We should be embarrassed about how we behave.