So, I recently watched a TED talk by Simon Sinek called “How great leaders inspire action.” This talk is actually a couple of years old, but I only found out about it (and Simon Sinek himself) from a colleague a week or so ago. My colleague found the talk very inspiring and wanted me to watch it on TED.com, so I did. (Before I go on, I need to say that I have not read Mr. Sinek’s book, in which he expands on the idea espoused in the TED talk; my comments on Sinek’s ideas are based only on what he laid out in the 20-minute lecture.)
My first issue is that it is not really clear what the talk is about. According to the title, it should be about how great leaders inspire action. But, when you listen to the talk, it seems to be about many things. It’s about why Apple is so successful (or innovative – Sinek seems to treat them as the same thing). It’s about why the Wright brothers pioneered powered manned flight, even though other, better-funded people were working on the same thing at the same time. It’s about why Martin Luther King, and not someone else, headed the civil rights movement in the U.S. Although Sinek treats these as “examples” of a larger point, I simply did not see the connection. It felt as though Sinek started with his idea and then went out to find famous events or people that he could shoehorn into his concept.
Let’s start, as he does, with Apple. He asks why it is that Apple is so consistently more innovative than the competition, when they are “just a computer company”, like all the others. But when he goes into detail with this Apple example, he talks about how Apple’s marketing is different from that of other companies. Rather than focus on Steve Jobs and how he inspired innovation from Apple employees, he turns the talk into “why Apple sells more stuff than the other companies.” (His answer, the idea of the “golden circle” notwithstanding, is that they appeal to a kind of snobbery: “We believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. If you believe in that, too, buy our product.” As opposed to the other guys, who make a more rational appeal: “We make good stuff, so buy it.”)
Why would he use a marketing example? Well, it makes sense when you learn that Simon Sinek came up through the ad agency ranks. His training is as an ad man, a marketer, a salesmen. So it’s not surprising that an advertising example comes easily to his mind.
His second example involves the Wright brothers. Why, he asks, did the Wright brothers pioneer powered manned flight when others with much greater resources (such as Samuel Pierpont Langley, who had government backing and access to large amounts of cash and expertise) did not. Again, in a nutshell, Sinek’s explanation is that the Wright brothers were motivated by a desire to change the world, while Langley just wanted to be rich and famous.
But, once again, how is this an example of how great leaders inspire action? Sinek says that the Wright brothers’ “team” gave the brothers their “blood, sweat and tears”, while Langley’s team were only in it for the paycheque. My first question is: how does he know what motivated the Wright brothers’ team, much less Langley’s? Also, this is the first time I have ever heard the Wright brothers used as an example of inspiring leadership. I am not an expert on the Wright brothers, by any means, but I do know that the image of the Wright brothers, like that of Thomas Edison, is of the brilliant loner. Just as we never hear about Edison’s “team”, we also never hear about the Wrights’. Again, it seems an odd example to use to describe inspiring leadership.
I mentioned the “golden circle” earlier. This is a set of three concentric rings that Sinek uses to illustrate his core concept. (The outer ring is labelled “what”, the middle ring,”how” and the inner ring, “why”.) His theory is that inspiring leaders are marked by communicating “from the inside out” i.e, from the “why”, rather than from the “what.” To go back to his Apple example, he argues that Apple markets like this: “We believe in challenging the status quo and thinking differently (the ‘why’). This is embodied in our computers, which are beautifully designed and user-friendly (the ‘how’).” Other computer companies, on the other hand, market like this: “We make computers. (the ‘what’). They are beautifully designed and user-friendly (the ‘how’).”
Sinek goes on to relate this “golden circle” concept to the human brain. He says that a cross-section of the human brain (looking from above) can be overlaid on the golden circle. The “what” ring corresponds to the neocortex and the inner “how” and “why” circles correspond to the limbic brain. Sinek says that the neocortex is the part of the brain in charge of language and “rational and analytical thought”, while the limbic brain is in charge of feelings, all decision-making and “it has no capacity for language.” If it’s not already clear, he goes on to spell it out: if you want to change behaviour, inspire loyalty, etc., you have to appeal to the limbic (emotional) part of the brain, not the neocortex (rational) part.
OK, where to begin? First of all, Simek does not explain how one appeals to a part of the brain that has “no capacity for language.” I don’t need language to know to pull my hand away from a flame, but I do need it to figure out what it is that Steve Jobs is trying to tell me, so that I can be inspired by it.
Also, it’s simply not the case that Apple’s advertising is all about telling people what they believe (the “why”). Think about the famous “Mac vs. PC” series of television commercials. To me, at least, they were very clearly about how Macs are more user-friendly than PCs, more versatile, more reliable, better. I see no appeal to some high-level “belief system”, simply “we have a better product” (albeit done in a very clever, entertaining way).
And, when you think about it, without the brain mumbo-jumbo, Sinek’s idea is nothing more or less than the classic appeal to emotion, something that advertisers have been doing from the very beginning of advertising. In a sense, isn’t much of advertising about making you want something that you might not want on a purely rational basis?
Sinek’s final example is that of Martin Luther King. He asks why it was Martin Luther King who led the civil rights movement. As Sinek says, King was not the only great orator of his time and he was not the only person to have suffered in a pre-civil-rights America. Why him? Curiously, it is a question that Sinek never answers. Oh, he explains that King told people what he believed, and this inspired people with similar beliefs to get behind him. (And Sinek’s line that King gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech” is pretty good.) But Sinek never answers the question: why was it King, and not someone else? In the absence of a “Wright brothers vs. Langley” or “Apple vs. other computer companies” comparison, we are left with the uncomfortable feeling that Sinek is saying King inspired people because he was inspiring (or that he was inspiring because he inspired people). He says King said what he believed, and that others who believed what he believed “made the cause their own.” Is it just me, or is there something missing there, another step that Sinek doesn’t mention? He seems to be saying that it is sufficient just to say what you believe, and that others who believe what you believe will automatically be moved to action. I think that, ultimately, the real secret is how you connect with those who believe what you believe and make them take the action you want them to take. Sadly, Sinek offers no clue to that secret and, to me at least, that means he never really answers the question in the title of his talk.
I’m curious how others reacted to Simon Sinek and his ideas. As always, comments are welcome.