Brainy Business Book Review: Start with Why by Simon Sinek (2009)

Brainy Business Book Review: Start with Why by Simon Sinek (2009). By popular demand, the Brainy Business Book Review is back! Here’s another savvy book summary from my Brainy Business Dad, Don Fletcher.

To Read or Not to Read?

*contains affiliate links

By popular demand, the Brainy Business Book Review is back! Here’s another savvy book summary from my Brainy Business Dad, Don Fletcher.

My dad is a real career advice guru: he’s read about 500 business books just in the last 15 years. (How did he find the time?? We’ll talk about that in a future post.) With all those books under his belt, he really knows the good from the bad from the just plain boring.

Is Start with Why worth a read or a waste of time? Read on to find out. Take it away, Dad!

The Brainy Business Book: Start with Why by Simon Sinek

Start with Why is the second in a string of bestsellers from Sinek, who also authored Leaders Eat Last and Together is Better. As its subtitle suggests, it illuminates the concept of “How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.”

The book is worthwhile for just this one point: it explains the process uplifting leaders, from Martin Luther King to Steve Jobs, followed to inspire their followers. This simple yet powerful concept should be applied in business and in life. That said, there are shortcomings that keep Start with Why off the top 25 business books list (more on this later).

How do great leaders make a difference, according to Sinek? They inspire us by focusing on WHY. His opening quote describes it best:

There are leaders and there are those who lead.
Leaders hold a (formal) position of power or influence.
Those who lead inspire us. We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to.
We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.

Sinek claims that effective leaders must explain WHY their followers should act prior to providing the facts around HOW they should act and WHAT they should do.  By analyzing organizations that have succeeded and those that have lost their way, he illustrates the importance of starting with WHY.

Here are my top 4 insights from the book:

Insight #1: Manipulation versus Inspiration

Sinek argues that “there are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” (Click here to tweet)

Manipulations commonly used in business include special pricing, promotions, and scare tactics, among others. In politics, enticing promises may get a candidate elected, but they do not form the foundation for great leadership.

The reason organizations and people employ manipulation is that it can be very effective in generating short-term action (e.g. buying what’s on special at the grocery store). For a one-time transaction, manipulation is the most effective way to induce the desired behavior.

However, the foundation of great leadership is to inspire loyalty over the long run, when support is generated through thick and thin.  So how do great leaders do it?

Want more Career hacks? Click here to Follow @brainybizbabe on Pinterest!

Insight #2: Inspirational Leaders and the Golden Circle

According to Sinek, every inspiring leader “thinks, acts and communicates in exactly the same way.” And it is the exact opposite from everyone else!

Sinek designed the Golden Circle diagram (modeled after the mathematical relationship of the golden ratio) to illustrate this communication pattern.

Simon Sinek's golden circle diagram: Inspirational leaders communicate great ideas in a specific order: 1. WHY: Inspiration starts with WHY we support a cause or organization. Although it’s critical to loyalty, very few organizations effectively articulate their WHY. 2. HOW: HOW (in the business setting) is what make the company’s offering different or better than an alternative choice. Marketing efforts often are focused here. 3. WHAT: WHAT an organization does is easy to identify (e.g. we make cars). Since communicating the WHAT is simple, many leaders fall into the trap of communicating it first. Sinek argues that starting with WHAT and then HOW misses the essence of inspirational leadership.

Inspirational leaders communicate great ideas in a specific order:

  1. WHY: Inspiration starts with WHY we support a cause or organization. Although it’s critical to loyalty, very few organizations effectively articulate their WHY.
  2. HOW: HOW (in the business setting) is what make the company’s offering different or better than an alternative choice. Marketing efforts often are focused here.
  3. WHAT: WHAT an organization does is easy to identify (e.g. we make cars). Since communicating the WHAT is simple, many leaders fall into the trap of communicating it first. Sinek argues that starting with WHAT and then HOW misses the essence of inspirational leadership.

Sinek writes that this order is deeply rooted in the reality of human biology. Which leads us to Insight #3…

Insight #3: Hearts and Minds

Our rational brain, the neocortex, is responsible for analytical thought, and most importantly, language. This area is where HOW and WHAT are processed.

WHY resides in the limbic brain, which is responsible for our feelings (such as loyalty), and “has no capacity for language.” The limbic brain is also responsible for “all human behavior and all our decision-making,” according to Sinek.

This division of functions creates a paradox. Our decision-making functionality exists in a different part of the brain from our ability to explain those decisions (through language).

Sinek states emphatically that inspiration come first from winning people’s hearts (the WHY), and only after that, winning minds with the important rational supporting reasons (the HOW and WHAT). It’s critical to win both hearts and minds, but inspiration begins with the heart.

Insight #4: Clarity and WHY

To ensure lasting success, Sinek says, an organization must provide clarity around its WHY.

He cites great leaders such as Steve Jobs of Apple, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, Martin Luther King, and the Wright Brothers as examples of leaders who communicated their WHY with great clarity.

Sinek also describes situations when a founding leader demonstrated their WHY with clarity, only to have it fade away once the leader was no longer in the picture.

For example, Sam Walton’s WHY was that “if he looked after people, people would look after him”. To Walton, “service was a higher cause.” Wal-Mart was arguably the most successful retailer in the world under his leadership.

After Walton, new Wal-Mart leadership did not articulate WHY, but focused on traditional measures of financial performance (the WHAT, or the results). The company’s image and profitability have suffered since. “The company once renowned for how it treated employees and customers has been scandal-ridden for nearly a decade. For Wal-Mart, WHAT they do and HOW they are doing it hasn’t changed. What has changed is that their WHY went fuzzy,” Sinek says.

Now for the shortcomings. This fourth insight points to a missed opportunity to deliver the most important chapter in the book, which could have titled “How to Find Your WHY.” Unlike Mastery by Robert Greene (reviewed last month), Start with Why offers no clear path on how to determine your WHY. This is a glaring weakness, considering this statement from Sinek: “The part of the brain that controls our feelings has no capacity for language. It is this disconnection that makes putting our feeling (or our WHY) into words so hard.”

Although Sinek’s Golden Circle analogy gives us the right order of WHY, HOW, and WHAT, it fails to help us find the WHY. Which of course is the critical element in this trilogy!

To be fair, Sinek has provided additional context since the book was published in 2009. Which leads us to…

The Bottom Line: To Read or not To Read

For reading fanatics who are drawn to Sinek’s concept, Start with Why is an enjoyable book.

For the interested but more casual student, you may forgo reading the book and instead glean the highlights from a video or podcast:

TED talk: How Great Leaders Inspire Action (the third most popular TED video of all time!)

The Unmistakable Creative Podcast interview: Finding Your Why by Simon Sinek

BREAKING NEWS: Brainy Business Babe has learned that Sinek is planning to publish a companion book to Start with Why, scheduled for September 2017. It will be titled Find Your Why: A Practical Guide to Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team. Let’s encourage Dad to read this new offering and write a sequel book review later this year! Stay tuned…

Have you read Start with Why or watched Simon Sinek’s TED talk? What’s your take? What other books would you like us to review for you? Let me know below in the comments!

We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. -Simon Sinek

*Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you click on one of my affiliate links and make a purchase, I may receive a commission for referring you. This comes at no extra cost to you. I’m grateful for your support!

Liked that? You'll love these related posts!

Brainy Business Book Review: Mastery by Robert Greene

Top Five Resolution Resources: Get Productive
Top Five: Best Free Apps for Work
Join us, brainy business babe!
Enter your email below, and you’ll be able to download my daily intention-setting tool instantly for free! You’ll also get my weekly mood-boosting email, which I hope will bring a smile to your Monday morning. (Don’t worry, you can unsubscribe anytime if it’s not your thing.)


[Some readers aren’t seeing the “subscribe” button here due to a browser glitch. If you’re one of the unlucky few, click here to subscribe!]

4 comments

  1. Claire says:

    I agree with Brainy Business Dad that you can read his review and watch the TED talk instead of reading Sinek’s entire book.

  2. Lisa says:

    This concept has completely changed the way I do business and changed the way I coach my business owners. It is such an eye opening (yet such a simple concept)! Love it!

  3. Manas Pruthi says:

    This is, hands down, one of the best and most powerful books I’ve ever read in my life. I have recommended it to countless people. The fact that you’re seeking it out says volumes about your level of self-awareness as it is and this book builds on that.

Leave a Reply