The Blindspot of Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” – No One Teaches “How?”

posted in: Nik Koulogeoge | 0
“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. It certainly struck a chord within Greek Life, and has been a part of almost every leadership conference I’ve attended.(somewhere near 100)

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. It was wise and clever to use popular examples such as Apple and Martin Luther King Jr.

Here’s the issue with this TED Talk and the following Sinek has amassed in the years since.

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

I have lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone attempt to explain the “Golden Circle” and completely dismiss the “How?” and “What?” parts, but it happens … a lot … like almost every time.

It doesn’t seem to matter if the presenter is a student, recent graduate, “doctor,” or CEO; they all teach it incompletely, most of the time. The reason is understandable. Sinek claims that most organizations overlook their why, but many who follow his work overcorrect. Now, “Why?” is all we talk about. For those too lazy to watch the video, here’s a breakdown of how the “Golden Circle” works:

  1. Determine your “Why?” (Good start, but there are two more circles to get through)
  2. Develop a “How?” (How does your organization operate to bring your “Why?” to life)
  3. Promote the “What?” (If you ignore the “How?” then your “What?” is unlikely to address your “Why?”)

The Apple Example, Reframed

Apple, one of Sinek’s preferred examples, does not just say, “We do everything to be different,” 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.

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

Apple focused on pushing consumer electronics to the limits of practicality. How could the design of the hardware and software make their product easy to use, out of the box.

“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 to give the same curvature and simplicity to his computer products and the operating system within each of those computer products. Just as one would expect the interior of a Mercedes Benz to compliment the design of its exterior, so too did the software of an Apple computer match its hardware.

Apple pays careful, obsessive attention to “how” they do things differently (the “Why?”) to achieve approachable computers (the “What?”). When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, they lost sight of their “How?,” and profits plummeted. When Jobs was re-hired, he slimmed down the product line and introduced the colorful iMacs and iBooks of the 90’s. Then came iPods, iTunes, iPhones, and so on.


Rather than pay equal attention to “Why?,” “How?,” and “What?,” we obsess over the why. We teach students how to “start with why,” and promise that things will be better for it. Then, after we have focus-grouped and turned our “why” into some bland version of “let’s not be terrible,” we consider whatever we churn out (the “Whats?”) as progress – regardless of their effectiveness. (See: Hazing Prevention)

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 people in charge feel certain of their “Why?” (something lofty and ridiculous like fixing problems by writing new rules) and piece together a “What?” out of thin air (banning something or seven generic “community values,” for example).

Martin Luther King Jr.

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 with every negative news article.

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. We do not have a specialized process to handle things in a fraternity way, or we might be able to fix problems instead of just responding to them.

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, “Why?,” we will continue to tread water when it comes to making ourselves relevant to modern college students and overcoming our greatest challenges.


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

Simon Sinek

What Mr. Sinek couldn’t capture with his clever, share-worthy quote (not for lack of knowledge, but to the detriment of his following), is that the “I Have a Dream” speech was all a part of a plan. That plan took far more time, thought, and effort than determining the dream itself.

Update June 2020: This post was edited and partially re-written for clarity and to link to newer, relevant posts. It also includes a new audio version, and was re-posted to the website this month.