Start With Why: A Critique

I’m not sure when I first heard of Simon Sinek and his exhortation to ‘start with why’, but it made sense immediately. Shared values bring people together, so of course we should first tell the story of why we do what we do, not let it get lost underneath what we do. When I re-read the transcript of his TEDx talk, however, I found I had a few questions about some of his leaps in logic, so I finally read his book last night for clarity. I found to my surprise and disappointment that the book did not deliver as I expected, and I was left exasperated and angry.

I had hoped for a compelling narrative of how Sinek came to his pithy thesis, replete with clear examples that could be translated into a road map for my own journey. Instead, I found the text to be muddled and meandering, which frustrated me all the more because I was so on board with Sinek’s position. As I read, I found myself coming to certain conclusions about operating with your why as your beacon. Sinek addressed some of these, but they were often buried under a mass of anecdotes. For my own peace of mind, I’ve written a two-part critique here. This first piece discusses what I found unclear and frustrating about the book. The second post outlines how I think a book on finding your why should have been written, calling attention to the almost throwaway comments and observations that I think Sinek should have made central to his book. Below, I’ve outlined my frustrations with the book as is (while trying to be civil and not turning this into a personal attack on Sinek!).

The book’s prose is rife with contradictions.

Sinek asserts that most marketing employs manipulative techniques (pp. 17-28) that do not foster trust and loyalty. Articulating why you do something (before what you do and how you do it) taps into people’s limbic brain (p. 58) which prompts those whose values resonate with yours to stick with you because it “feels right” at a primal level. This isn’t manipulation; it’s community-building. Later on, however, he admits that manipulation also tickles your limbic brain (p. 73). Unfortunately, the book’s lack of any reference to scientific material makes it impossible to divine what the real difference between the two strategies are.

At first, the book appears to be calling for us to dig down beneath what you do, past how you do it, to get to why you do it. In short, behind the product is the process, behind which is the purpose (and if Sinek had used my just-inspired 3P approach, it might have provided some mnemonic clarity). In the middle of the book, though, Sinek divides people themselves into why-types and how-types (p. 141), hinting that there are also cog-like what-types – but who wants to be a cog? While Sinek urges for partnerships between why-types and how-types, no help is given in figuring out which of these types one might be. Jobs and Wozniak apparently exemplify this partnership (p. 142), and yet “Apple is just one of the WHATs to Jobs’ and Woz’s WHY” (p. 212), rendering Woz a how-person with an apparent why.

The examples provided are often imbalanced and confusing.

Sinek rounds up the usual suspects—Apple, Southwest, Harley-Davidson—to illustrate good examples of companies with a clear sense of why, but the only measure of success appears to be a cult-like following. Meanwhile, Michael Dell (p.197), Sam Walton (p. 203), and Howard Schultz (p. 198) were apparently all visionaries with a why, and yet their companies lost their way. The only measure of this failure appears to be unethical practices. Apple is by no means a perfect company; Sinek asserts that Jobs recruited John Sculley manipulatively – with disastrous results (p.196), and Apple iPods are “plagued with battery life and battery replacement issues” (p. 45). Meanwhile, Harley-Davidson takes forever to ship custom motorcycles, which Sinek admits is “bad service [by any standard]” (p. 125). I am left wondering, then, what these examples are intended to be illustrative of.

Southwest’s successful practices are often unintentional or a response to struggle. For example, Southwest followed another airline’s casual hot pants/go-go boots uniform, and found that only a particular type of person applied for the job as a result (p. 94). These people tended to have particular qualities that Southwest liked, so they continued to recruit these people more heavily. The example discussing airline’s ten-minute turnaround is not one about ‘why’ at all, but about a courageous response to a difficult situation (p. 101). The book’s assertion that “they believed they could” seems like a fairly inadequate why. Why did they believe that?

The story of how Gordon Bethune turned Continental around and built trust (pp.84-88) ends with how employees are all given separate profit-cheques when things go well to remind them of why they work for Continental: to make it “one of the best”. That doesn’t seem like much of a why to me. It certainly seems like a nurturing and democratic company, but not one with a well-developed sense of why. The story is rendered more confusing by a divergent anecdote in the middle about Sinek’s former roommate (p. 86).

Meanwhile, the book’s articulation of Martin Luther King’s “belief in equality” (p. 128) doesn’t really set him apart from his contemporaries behind the civil rights movement. The real difference appears to be that he is a moving speaker. That’s not knowing your why; that’s knowing who you’re talking to. I’ve no doubt that MLK had a why; I just don’t know why his why was so much more successful than his peers who I thought believed in the same thing. If they didn’t, then what did they believe and why wasn’t that why good enough?

The language is incredibly imprecise.

The book’s dedication to its readers starts by differentiating ‘leaders’ (people in a position of power) from ‘those who lead’ (people who inspire), yet the book then carelessly uses the word ‘leader’ later on (e.g. p. 99). Sinek writes that managers looking to hire “passionate people” don’t specify that these potential employees are necessarily passionate about the same things as they are (p. 93), but then uses the word “passion” in the same sweeping fashion: “Passion comes from feeling like you are part of something that you believe in, something bigger than yourself.” (p. 111)

The book’s articulation of why is preposterously vague, making it very difficult to pinpoint how to determine and articulate one’s own why. Despite Sinek’s dismissal of managers’ search for “passionate people”, his own use of “passion” on page 111 sounds like another word for why, especially when compared to a later articulation of our why as “our driving purpose, cause, cause, or belief” (p. 136). And yet, the book also asserts that “HOWs are your values and principles that guide HOW to bring your cause to life” (p. 66) which is a perplexing tautology, made all the more confusing by a line on the following page that a “WHY is just a belief. That’s all it is. HOWs are the actions you take to realize that belief. And WHATs are the results of those actions–everything you say and do[.]” (p.67)

Sinek inserts an anecdote about a Jeff Sumpter (p. 135) to articulate how career paths are incidental to one’s why, but we are never really told what Sumpter’s why is, just that it’s not a passion for banking despite being a banker. This is not very helpful. Random capitalising of the word WHY is equally unhelpful: “General Jumper forgot WHY he was so good…” (p. 108). According to the story, Jumper was good because he had a great team looking out for him, but that ‘why’ is not Jumper’s personal belief or purpose so highlighting the word does not serve any purpose. The book describes how Toyota and Honda created new brands Lexus and Acura to market luxury cars, as their WHY of “efficiency and affordability” would not mesh with high-end products, but then disconcertingly asserts that “Lexus is still another WHAT to Toyota’s WHY” (p. 171).

There is no roadmap for how to get to your own why.

I’m left with a lot of unanswered questions. Sinek asserts that we need the clarity of why, the discipline of how, and the consistency of what (pp. 65-69) – but what do I do to get there, assuming I’m a why-type at all? He provides the “celery test” to assist in making decisions (p. 168) but it’s fairly simplistic. What if my ‘why’ had to do with metaphorical comfort food and not nutritious food? The story about Samuel Pierpont Langley (pp. 96-97) indicates that any old why won’t do. How do we ascertain an ethically valid why?

How do I build my own megaphone (p. 165) and market my work to the right people (p.121) who will understand and amplify my why? Am I aiming for a tipping point at all, or focusing on cultivating a devoted following no matter how small? How do I gauge success? The book casually contends that when we are “motivated by WHY, success just happens” (p. 96) but what that success looks like is deeply problematic. I would assume it looks like internal motivation and inner contentment, but that seems like an unappealing business model. The book provides an example in the monetary achievements of Bridgeport Financial – collecting 300% more than the industry average – as an indicator of success even as it affirms that money is a poor metric for said success. (p. 191).

If our limbic brain has no capacity for language (p. 56) then how do we adequately find words for our why? It seems a little unfair to write that “If we can’t easily assess a company’s WHY simply from looking at their products, services, marketing and public statements, then odds are high that they don’t know what it is either. If they did, so would we.” (p. 202) If “most successful entrepreneurs are how-types” who have no need for a why-type (p.141) then why do businesses need a why at all? And how do I stay aligned with my why if I’m a how-type, assuming I am somehow able to gauge what type I am?

The book’s lack of credible sources is troubling.

Part of the trouble is that I have little idea of where Sinek is getting his ideas. The book’s sources and statistics are fuzzy and few. Here’s one that got me riled up right at the start: “Studies show that over 80% of Americans do not have their dream job.” (p.7) There was no source at all for this one, and it’s a pretty peculiar statistic. How does one even define a dream job? One in which you feel fulfilled and happy? If these people were to land the job they believe would bring them fulfilment, would they actually be happy? Does all work need to be a dream job at all?

The end notes (pp. 233-9) are particularly telling. The book’s sources are largely company websites and news articles, with a very few actual book sources thrown in. The best books I’ve read also have a killer list of references – sources that I immediately feel I must get my hands on and devour. This list is singularly uninspiring. Sinek insists his Golden Circle is rooted in biology (p. 51, 56, 65), yet I see no references that substantiate his claim. If, for example, you are going to make claims like “trust is lodged squarely in the same place as the WHY” (p.112), then please include a source, your source, that discusses trust and the psychology of creating community. Tell me, please, what you’re basing your argument on. Show me the giants upon whose shoulders you are standing on. Don’t subject me to an unsatisfying guessing game that leaves me angry, confused, and disappointed.

In the end, while I don’t disbelieve Sinek’s claim, I’m left with the conviction that the book he should have written exists only in a few fragmented comments buried under cliched business-speak, which is why in my next post, I take it upon myself to outline what should have been said, no matter how unmarketable or uncomfortable.

5 thoughts on “Start With Why: A Critique

  1. I found your commentary because I just read Part I of this book and found it unsatisfying. I wondered if I was missing something and whether the rest of the book would be worth reading. It seems that it isn’t.

    It’s a shame because it makes intuitive sense, at least to me, that purpose does, or maybe should, matter a great deal. But that concept may make more sense for individuals rather than profit seeking enterprises.

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