Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” Ruined Leadership

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“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” – Simon Sinek

 

What a guy right?

Simon Sinek may have led one of the most insightful and impactful TED Talks with regard to Greek Life. I am unsure of how big a deal Simon Sinek is outside of my own circles, but his name seems to have gotten around.

Let me start by saying that I’d be a fool to disagree with Simon’s understanding of leadership and messaging. I think his concept of starting with “why,” then moving to “how,” and finally “what” is a recipe for marketing and planning success that our fraternities and sororities have yet to experience, and I think it was wise to use popular examples such as Apple and Martin Luther King Jr.

Here’s my issue with Simon Sinek, this TED Talk, and his associated book “Start With Why?”:

Everyone is starting and stopping at why and nothing is getting done (or done well anyway). 

I can’t effectively estimate how many times I’ve heard a man or woman explain the “golden circle” in a rushed interpretation of Simon’s TED Talk and completely ignore the whole “how” and “what” parts. I’m not exaggerating, I literally cannot count the number of times I’ve heard someone botch this presentation.

It doesn’t seem to matter if the person is a student, recent graduate, “doctor,” or CEO; they all get it wrong, most of the time, and it’s because we try to downplay the “how” and “what” to instead focus on the often-overlooked “why” (overlooked pre-Simon Sinek anyway). Here’s a breakdown:

  • Phase 1 is determining a “why,” yes, but there are two more circles to get through. . .
  • If you don’t figure out the “how,” Phase 2, and put an equal if not heightened amount of time into determining the “how,” then your product is less likely to align with your “why.”
  • If you don’t spend time using the “how” to get to the “what,” your “why” and “how” are ultimately worthless.

APPLE

Apple, one of Sinek’s examples in the video above, does not just say, “We do everything to be different,” and then magically obtain a killer product out of thin air. They don’t just make their products “user friendly;” anyone can do that.

No.

Being a “different” consumer electronics company is their “why,” sure, but that took all of maybe 1 minute for Apple’s founders to determine as a good enough “why.”

How was Apple going to be a different consumer electronics company? It’s simple: Apple’s competitors focus on pushing consumer electronics to their technical limits. More processing power, more programs, better graphics and dozens of options to upgrade your device.

Apple focused on pushing consumer electronics to the limit of being easy to use. They focus purely on the effect of design on a person’s ability to pick up and use their product almost immediately.

 

“Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works” – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, the brainchild behind Apple’s marketing and uniqueness, was obsessed with the curves of his Mercedes Benz. He felt they gave his vehicle a smooth, effortless look that made his ride more enjoyable than any other luxury vehicle.

He hired engineers, much like a car company would, to give the same curvature and simplicity to his computer products and the operating system within each of those computer products.

Apple paid careful, obsessive attention to “how” they did things differently (the why) to achieve approachable computers (the what).

GREEK LIFE

Greek Life professionals seem to be obsessed with this narrative and with Sinek himself. Well, if he’s so wise, what’s the problem?

Rather than pay equal attention to the “why,” “how,” and “what,” we obsess and obsess over the why, and teach to our students that they need to “start with why.” Then, after we have focus-grouped and turned our “why” into some bland version of “let’s not suck,” we churn out half baked “what’s” and call them “progress.”

Want to know why there is so much turnover in our field? Care to ask why a school can’t seem to keep policies or programs in place for longer than a few years without major overhauls? It’s because the professionals in charge know their “why” (typically something lofty and ridiculous like changing the world through frat bros) and piece together a “what” out of thin air (a policy banning single-sex groups or fifteen community values that everyone is somehow supposed to remember).

The fix is simple: spend more time in the painstaking, difficult exploration of the “how.”

Knowing why you do something is critical, but it’s not that hard to figure out.

Spend more time in contemplation, or tinkering, or whatever floats your boat, to determine how you do something so that it is uniquely yours and serves as an extension of why you want to do it.

Programs should not be created and launched overnight. Policies too should not be created or changed overnight.

With every sexual assault, or shooting, or hazing incident, or discrimination incident, our audience demands immediate action and we cave, often doing nothing but suppress the problem.

As people who claim to train America’s future leaders, we should find value in restraint and patience.

We should teach our students that it is okay not to cave to the pressure of an audience. We should teach our students to be thoughtful not only in why they do something, but how they go about doing it.

Until we stop ignoring “how” at the expense of the more exciting, more marketable, “why” and “what,” we will continue to suffer a brain drain and an ineffective fight against our greatest vices.

DREAMS LEAD TO PLANS

“It was the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, not the ‘I Have a Plan’ speech” – Simon Sinek

What Mr. Sinek seems to ignore with his clever, share-worthy quote designed to summarize his presentation (not for lack of knowledge, but to the detriment of his cult), is that the “I Have a Dream” speech was all a part of a plan. A plan that took far more time and effort than determining the dream itself.