We all know the TedTalk and the basic premise. It is not the most well-written book and has a singular focus (which isn’t surprising given his thesis). He expands on his single focus using a series of stories about companies and individuals, mostly from the 20th century.
His single focus is that People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. He argues convincingly that really successful businesses and individuals have utter clarity regarding their reasons for doing something. They have an almost pathological focus on their ‘Why’. And, it is never money, profit, fame or notoriety.
He talks about Sam Walton’s (Founder of Walmart) initial genesis for starting the business. He had one simple belief – look after people and people will look after you. And this principle manifested in everything to do with his staff and customers.
Shortly after his death in 1992, his son (and new CEO) said “No changes are expected in our corporate direction, control or policy“. Since his death, successive generations have not shared that same basic original ‘Why’. Over the years they have gradually polarised away from a people-centric organisation and instead focused on shareholder return and world domination. Sinek argues that if Sam were alive today he would be mortified at the volume of lawsuits against the business for mistreatment of their employees. Walmart, he argues, has been in decline ever since the founding Why disappeared.
Cheap, fun and simple
Another example used is Southwest Airlines. The birth of the business was the perfect storm between two very different personalities. One numbers guy, who was a bit awkward: and the other a charming and gregarious Texan. What bound them and inspired them to start a low-cost airline in Texas was that they believed in ‘the common man’. They built the business on three core principles – cheap, fun and simple. In the 1970’s most people who flew, wore a tie. They avoided dynamic pricing and only had two prices – Nights/Weekends and Daytimes. Simple.
They were not the first company to attempt to break into the low-cost airline business but they, arguably, have been the most successful. Southwest have made a profit every year since their inception and command fierce loyalty from their travellers because of their ‘common man’ ethos. Sinek argues this all leads back to their original ‘why’.
Why did Steve Jobs have to come to Apple’s rescue after he was considered persona non-grata? Or Howard Shultz to Starbucks’? Sinek says it’s because the individuals that take over most businesses simply don’t believe what the founders believe. And therefore, the business compass – that guides all decision making – becomes corrupted and confused. This leads to races to the bottom on price and various other manipulations to gain custom. It doesn’t build loyalty. Sinek reckons if you want loyalty, if you want a cult-like following or people to be evangelical about your cause, you have to find people who believe what you believe. Customers and staff alike.
Am I inclined to buy Sineks argument?
Yes, by and large. Recent political events support it anyway. For all his flaws, Trump believes something and he has connected with people who would follow him over a cliff. Likewise, with Corbyn. No other Politicians can claim to command blind faith from voters.
It doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to buy into Sineks ‘Why’. Perhaps he has validated his theory nicely by being 3rd on the all-time most viewed TedTalks.