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Simon Sinek’s Start with Why Shows What Distinguishes Great Business Leaders

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek. New York: Portfolio, 2009. 256 pp. $26.95 (hardcover).

How did Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, build the most profitable airline in America—one able to profit even during the economic turmoil following 9/11? In Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek shows that what separates fabulously successful business leaders such as Kelleher from mediocre leaders is their clarity in defining why they do what they do.

Kelleher, for instance, built Southwest Airlines around the idea of offering inexpensive flights. This was what Southwest offered. But Southwest did not succeed merely by offering inexpensive flights; after all, Pacific Southwest tried the same approach, yet failed. Southwest succeeded because it had a deeper mission. Southwest’s why, Sinek points out, was to champion “the common man” in his travels.

In the 1970s, only 15 percent of the traveling population traveled by air. The seemingly small size of this market that was already serviced by several large companies did not bother Kelleher, because he was not competing with big airlines. He had a different purpose:

Back then if you asked Southwest whom their competition was, they would have told you, “we compete against the car and the bus.” But what they meant was, “We’re the champion of the common man.” That was WHY they started the airline. That was their cause, their purpose, their reason for existing. (p. 32)

Because its “why” was clear, the airline’s every value branched out of this cause.

In the 1970s, air travel was expensive, and if Southwest was going to be the champion for the common man, they had to be cheap. It was an imperative. And in a day and age when air travel was elitist—back then people wore ties on planes—as the champion for the common man, Southwest had to be fun. It was an imperative. In a time when air travel was complicated, with different prices depending on when you booked, Southwest had to be simple. If they were to be accessible to the other 85 percent, then simplicity was an imperative. At the time, Southwest had two price categories: nights/weekends and daytime. That was it. Cheap, fun and simple. That’s HOW they did it. That’s how they were to champion the cause of the common man. The result of their actions was made tangible in the things they said and did—their product, the people they hired, their culture and their marketing. “You are now free to move about the country,” they said in their advertising. That’s much more than a tagline. That’s a cause. (p. 34)

Sinek fills his book with such stories to illustrate why companies need to start with “why” and how they can go about doing so.

Sinek also discusses what happens when companies do not start with “why”; this is the focus of the first part of his book. When businesses lack a clear mission, they tend to focus on short-term economic gains at the expense of long-term success and customer loyalty. One example Sinek offers is that of rebates that companies offer but hope buyers will neglect to redeem. In the retail industry the term for failing to redeem a rebate is called “breakage,” and some companies intentionally make their rebates confusing to increase such “breakage.” Or, in some cases, when gyms offer empty promises of “beach body abs in ten days,” they are counting on people irrationally buying a membership without becoming serious long-term clients.

Another way some companies sacrifice long-term success, Sinek notes, is by focusing on minor eye-catching novelties at the expense of more fundamental innovation. For example, in 2004 Motorola offered the glitzy RAZR phone, the so-called “phone of firsts.” This product incorporated aircraft grade aluminum, an internal antenna, and chemically etched keypads. For a time the product was wildly successful. Yet only four years later, Motorola’s CEO was ousted and its stock tumbled 50 percent. Apple, on the other hand, offered not only new features with its phone, such as the touch screen, but a fundamentally new way of interacting with service providers:

In the mobile phone industry [prior to Apple’s entry], it is the service provider, not the phone manufacturer, that determines all the features and benefits the phone can offer. T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, AT&T, all dictate to Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson, LG and others what the phones will do. Then Apple showed up. They announced that they would tell the service provider what the phone would do, not the other way around. AT&T was the only one that agreed, thus earning the company the exclusive deal to offer the new technology. (p. 27)

By focusing on its mission, on gaining the loyalty of its customers, and on the company’s long-term success, Apple prospered while Motorola declined.

Sinek also reviews Apple in the final part of his book, where he discusses how business leaders go about developing their “why.” Sinek argues that a person’s “why” is embedded in his deepest values. For Apple’s Steve Jobs—who came of age in the rebellious 1970s—the personal computer was a way to empower individuals to pursue their own goals. In a snarky Wall Street Journal ad in 1981, Jobs invited then-dominant IBM to join Apple in the personal computer revolution. And Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl commercial features the destruction of Big Brother, which was an embodiment of the stagnant corporations Apple was designed to challenge. In 1997 Apple released its commercial “Here’s to the Crazy Ones,” which featured Einstein, Martin Luther King, Amelia Earhart, Bob Dylan, Gandhi, Alfred Hitchcock, and numerous other men and women who challenged the status quo.

It’s no coincidence that Apple revolutionized the personal computer industry, the music industry, and the mobile phone industry. In each field Apple’s goal was not merely to create products to make money. Apple’s aim was to fundamentally challenge the assumptions of each industry. Apple had (and appears still to have) one of the clearest whys in American business. Every business decision, every marketing campaign, every product resonates this reason for being.

Through his discussions and examples, Sinek shows that starting with “why” is what defines a great leader. Although the book focuses on the business world, it shows how the principle applies in other areas of life as well, including cultural activism and even dating. As Sinek repeatedly emphasizes, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

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