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Action University Summary (February 27, 2017): Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

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Have you ever wondered how great leaders become great? What is the “secret sauce” they have that makes them stand-out and command the attention and respect of thousands, no, millions of followers? What is it that great business leaders have that creates the Midas touch and turns everything into gold? Join us for the next ten minutes as we share the secrets of how great leaders inspire everyone to take action and with the help of Simon Sinek understand why we should “Start with WHY”.

Lesson 1: Inspirational Carrots. 

Despite the multiple ways in which we can communicate with each other, there are effectively only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it. When we look at the number of different incentives offered to us as consumers: price drops, special short term promotions, using fear as a trigger, peer pressure or even aspirational messages, when we drill down, in all cases we are being manipulated. We are being put under some form of stress to make a quick decision for the benefit of the vendor. This happens everywhere, be it a purchase, a vote or support.

Or you can inspire. Great leaders are able to create a following of people who act not because they were manipulated, but because they were inspired. For those who are inspired, the motivation to act is deeply personal. They are less likely to be swayed by incentives so no need for parallel manipulations. Those who are inspired are willing to pay a premium, endure inconvenience or even personal suffering (queuing in the rain for the latest gizmo?).

Those who are able to inspire will create a following of people—supporters, voters, customers, workers—who act for the good of the whole not because they have to, but because they want to.

So forget the manipulative stick, let’s stick to the inspirational carrot.

Lesson 2: Three little words: What, How, and Why.

Every single company and organization on the planet knows WHAT they do. WHATs are easy to identify. These are the things our job specifications, our product designs and our meetings all focus on. They are tangible.

At a more detailed level, some companies and people know HOW they do WHAT they do. HOWs are often given to explain how something is different or better.

Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care? WHY’s are intangible.

Because focussing on the WHATs and HOWs is easier, most businesses use language associated with WHAT’s and HOW’s to promote their products and services. Lets consider Apple. If Apple were like most companies, using WHATs and HOWs, their marketing message may sound something like this: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly – want to buy one?”

But that is not what Apple does, nor do inspiring leaders and organizations. Every one of them, regardless of size or industry, thinks, starts with a WHY.

Let’s look at that Apple example again and rewrite the example in the order Apple actually communicates – the WHY way: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly – want to buy one?”

Notice the difference? It’s a completely different message. Apple doesn’t simply reverse the order of the WHAT information, their message starts with WHY, a purpose, cause or belief that has nothing to do with WHAT they do. WHAT they do—the products they make, from computers to small electronics—no longer serves as the reason to buy, they serve as the tangible proof of their cause.

People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.

Lesson 3: De-Fuzzing Why.

If a customer feels inspired to buy a product, rather than feeling manipulated, they will be able to verbalize the reasons why they think what they bought is better than its alternatives. In reality, their purchase decision and their loyalty are deeply personal.

So what should a company do? Instead of asking, “WHAT should we do to compete?” the questions must be asked, “WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring our cause to life?”

Looking again at Apple, their advertising and communications, their products, their partnerships, their packaging, their store design: they are all WHATs to Apple’s WHY, proof that they actively challenge status quo thinking to empower the individual.

Ever notice that Apple’s advertising never shows groups enjoying their products? Always individuals. Their “Think Different” campaign depicted individuals who thought differently, never groups. Always individuals. This is no accident. Empowering the individual spirit is WHY Apple exists.

Looking at other computer manufacturers, HP and Dell have a fuzzy sense of WHY. Their products and their brands don’t symbolize anything about the users. To the Dell or HP user, their computer, no matter how fast or sleek, is not a symbol of a higher purpose, cause or belief. It’s just a computer.

Are your WHY’s fuzzy?

Lesson 4: Followers choose to follow.

In the summer of 1963, a quarter of a million people showed up in from of Abraham Lincoln to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. But how many people showed up for Dr. King? Very few. They showed up for themselves. He had identified a WHY that others took up as their own.

A WHY that included a vision, values and beliefs that matched their own. Alignment of intangibles. People followed him not because of his idea of a changed America. People followed him because of their idea of a changed America. Dr. King offered America a place to go, not a plan to follow.

Ernest Shakleton, a renowned and inspirational leader who never achieved what he set out to do – get to the South Pole – demonstrated the same skills. When Shackleton appealed for crew to join him on his fateful expedition he did not define a list of appropriate skills. He identified a WHY of his own and sought followers. The advertisement read:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” Shackleton hired only people who believed what he believed. Their ability to survive was guaranteed. When employees belong, they will guarantee your success.

Lesson 5: Followers need to belong.

The Sneetches in Dr. Seuss’s famous picture book, star-bellied or otherwise, perfectly capture a very basic human need, the need to belong. Their desire to be part of the bigger group had them embellishing their bodies with a common marque. Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exists across all people in all cultures. It is a feeling we get when those around us share our values and beliefs. When we feel like we belong we feel connected and we feel safe. As humans we crave the feeling and we seek it out. No matter where we go, we trust those with whom we are able to perceive common values or beliefs.

Harley Davidson are experts in fulfilling this need. Through the HOGS – the owner groups – the riders WHYs truly align to that of the company to the extent that, like Sneetches, many go for permanent body art, tattooing the company logo on their arms (or other body parts!).

Our natural need to belong also makes us good at spotting things that don’t belong. It’s a sense we get. A feeling. Something deep inside us, something we can’t put into words, allows us to feel how some things just fit and some things just don’t. Dell selling mp3 players just doesn’t feel right because Dell defines itself as a computer company, so the only things that belong are computers.

We are drawn to leaders and organizations that make us feel like we belong. To make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.

Lesson 6: Verbalize your values.

Once you know WHY you do what you do, the question is how will you do it? What are the values or principles that will guide how to bring your cause to life? How we do things and, more importantly, having a discipline to hold our organization and our employees accountable to the chosen guiding principles enhances our ability to work to our natural strengths.

But we don’t make it easy. We remind ourselves of our values by writing them on the wall … as nouns. Integrity. Honesty. Innovation. Communication. Nouns are not actionable. They are things. You can’t build systems or develop incentives around those things. It’s nearly impossible to hold people accountable to nouns.

If your WHYs and their WHY correspond, then they will see your products and services as tangible ways to prove what they believe. When WHY, HOW, and WHAT are in balance, authenticity is achieved and the buyer feels fulfilled.

Bringing it together:

A company is a culture. A group of people brought together around a common set of values and beliefs. It’s not products or services that bind a company together. It’s not size and might that make a company strong, it’s the culture—the strong sense of beliefs and values that everyone, from the CEO to the receptionist, all share.

When people inside the company know why they come to work, people outside the company are more likely to understand why the company is special. In these organizations, from the management down, no one sees themselves as any more or any less than anyone else. They all need each other.

Great organizations become great because the people inside the organization feel protected. The strong sense of culture creates a sense of belonging and acts like a net. People come to work knowing that their bosses, colleagues and the organization as a whole will look out for them. This results in reciprocal behaviour.

The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen. To be charismatic and inspirational. Energy excites but charisma inspires. Energy is easy to see, easy to measure and easy to copy. Charisma is hard to define, near impossible to measure and too elusive to copy. Charisma has nothing to do with energy; it comes from a clarity of WHY.

It comes from commitment to an ideal bigger than yourself. Energy can always be injected into an organization to motivate people to do things. Bonuses, promotions, other carrots and even a few sticks can get people to work harder, for sure, but the gains are, like all manipulations, short-lived.

Great leaders start from why, have an inspirational story to tell, bring others who share their belief together and through how and what help individuals fulfill their own whys.


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