What motivates people to act? Whether it’s a purchase decision or the ability to inspire a group of employees to begin working on an important project, there’s a mental switch that mobilizes people to action. According to leadership expert Simon Sinek, the push-button activates when a leader leads with their “Why.” He references organizations like Southwest and Harley-Davidson that lead with Why, explaining it’s the defining factor that launches businesses into success. This philosophy is the central focus of his best-selling book, Start With Why.
Leading with Why is what gains leaders followers. This process doesn’t happen by force, but through the inspiration people feel when they hear a message that creates a unified sense of belonging and purpose. Sinek uses Martin Luther King, Jr., as a prime example of a person who led with their Why. Because King’s message of equality was clear, emotionally compelling, and positively influential, he acquired a vast amount of followers who propelled the group’s collective vision forward.
Through his studies on great people and organizations, Sinek creates a simple, three-step formula any company can use to gain a loyal following that jumpstarts their own movement: The Golden Circle. Discover how to inspire action by operating from the inside-out of The Golden Circle. Additionally, learn how Airbnb leverages their purpose, plus receive several tips for leading with your own Why.
Introduction to Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle
Sinek’s Golden Circle illustrates how all individual leaders and organizations who start with Why “think, act, and communicate.” His concept was inspired by the golden ratio, a centuries-old mathematical equation that calculates beauty based on an object’s ratio of symmetry. He wanted to create a process for inspiring people to action in a way that produced predictable, repeatable results across a wide variety of fields and industries. Sinek writes, “Like the golden ratio, which offers evidence of order in the seeming disorder of nature, The Golden Circle finds order and predictability in human behavior. Put simply, it helps us understand why we do what we do” and “how much more we can achieve if we remind ourselves to start everything we do by first asking why.”
More importantly, The Golden Circle isn’t a random theory Sinek came up with. Based on science, it actually corresponds to the human brain. For instance, he found Why and How speak to the oldest part of the brain: the limbic system. Speaking to this part of the brain is incredibly important because it controls a person’s feelings, decisions, and behavior. The neocortex, the youngest, most evolved part of the brain, is responsible for analytical thought and language. In short, this area of the mind helps us rationalize our decisions. It goes without saying all three are extremely important when it comes to influencing the actions of employees or customers.
Exploring Each Circle
Sinek’s visual representation of his formula for inspiring people into action involves three concentric circles, Why, How, and What. The center circle, the core of the model, is marked “Why”. The next circle outward is “How.” And finally, the outer circle is labeled “What”. When thinking, acting, and communicating, focus on these three areas, in this order.
Inner Circle: Why
The first step in leading with Why is knowing what it is. Your Why is your purpose for existing. It speaks to a leader’s cause and belief that drives them to start a movement that achieves a better future through a collective goal.
When a leader invites people to join their cause, they’re inviting them to belong to a community. Creating a sense of belonging is important because it fulfills an important basic human need. As Sinek writes, “When we feel like we belong, we feel connected and we feel safe. As humans, we crave the feeling and we seek it out.” He goes on to say people will go to great lengths to belong to an organization. For example, this might look like a person tattooing the Harley-Davidson logo on their body. While belonging to a group helps people express their individuality, it also identifies them as a part of something greater than themselves.
To find your company’s Why, think about:
- The collective cause or belief your business exists for
- How your organization serves a better vision of the future
- Why your company matters
- How your business’s purpose helps customers achieve their own purpose
- What group your clients want to belong to
Middle Circle: How
The next step is considering your How, the way in which your organization fulfills its mission. Sinek explains, “Whether you call them a ‘differentiating value proposition,’ ‘proprietary process,’ or ‘unique selling proposition,’ Hows are often given to explain how something is different or better.” For example, Tesla’s How might be creating beautifully designed, technologically advanced electric vehicles. It’s different from their Why, which could be summarized as moving the world away from fossil fuels in the hopes of preserving the planet.
Discover your business’s How by considering:
- What your company does to differentiate itself from its competitors
- Which exciting developments motivate employees and customers
- Where your organization provides the most value
- What could positively influence the decision-making process
Outer Circle: What
Sinek argues most businesses have their What down pat. So much so, they actually lead with What, operating the circle from the outside-in. This occurs because What is the most tangible, while Why is the least clear-cut. “Not inspired leaders. Every single one of them, regardless of their size or their industry, thinks, acts, and communicates from the inside out,” he points out. Regardless, What is important because while the first two circles speak to a person’s heart, that isn’t enough. The mind needs to rationalize decisions, making What essential to the process.
Include your organization’s What by determining:
- What products or services you sell
- What actions the company takes to make their Why a reality
- The roles and responsibilities individual employees take on
What Implementing The Golden Circle Looks Like
So what does The Golden Circle look like in action? Sinek uses Apple as the perfect example of a company that uses “Why, How, What” to create a brand. The business—especially when Steve Jobs was at the helm—is genius at using their purpose to inspire people into action. Their 1997 “Think Different” campaign is a great example. It featured images of the world’s most famous leaders, while Jobs voiced a message spoken directly to a new generation of changemakers. With no mention of a product or call to action, the ad was so inspiring, it could stand alone.
Sinek says in his renowned TED Talk How great leaders inspire action, if most businesses were in charge of Apple’s messaging, they’d describe their “What” and “How.” He says this might look like: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. Wanna buy one?”
But because leaders at Apple start with Why, their message sounds very different. Sinek says the company actually communicates its core message like this: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”
This message shows the power of leading with Why. It’s instantly more engaging, inspiring, and uplifting. It speaks directly to customers who resonate with nonconformity. Better yet, this type of message creates a sense of belonging. When leaders start with Why, they tell their customers, “You’re not alone. We get you, even if other people don’t. You belong here.”
Airbnb’s Use of the Golden Circle
Airbnb is another great example of a company that leads with their Why. The business’s leaders understand that speaking to their customers’ limbic system is incredibly important. So much so, they’ve focused their entire brand message around belonging—the feeling Sinek says followers’ primal brains desperately seek.
In a blog article introducing Airbnb’s “community symbol” the Bélo, co-founder Brian Chesky writes, “For so long, people thought Airbnb was about renting houses. But really, we’re about home. You see, a house is just a space, but a home is where you belong. And what makes this global community so special is that for the very first time, you can belong anywhere. That is the idea at the core of our company: belonging.” Here, Chesky identifies the difference between the organization’s What and its Why. It shows the CEO understands the importance of leading from within The Golden Circle.
How They Put Their Why to Work
This message is repetitive throughout Airbnb’s various brand touchpoints. Take their mission statement for example. Airbnb’s mission is to “help create a world where you can belong anywhere and where people can live in a place, instead of just traveling to it.” The first part of the sentence describes the Why: “to help create a world where you can belong.” The next part describes their How: “where people can live in a place, instead of just traveling to it.” This is what differentiates Airbnb from other rental sites. The company already implies their What—renting homes—so stating it isn’t necessary.
In addition to this, Airbnb likely doesn’t want to box themselves in when describing what they do. With the launch of OpenHomes, they’ve proven this. Since 2012, they’ve partnered with over 50,000 refugees and those who need homes with a free place to stay. This proves their Why—their mission—is far greater than their What.
Start with Why Using These Leadership Styles
Simon Sinek’s formula for helping leaders guide purpose-driven teams isn’t effective unless a leader uses two particular leadership styles as a conduit for their Why. These two distinct leadership styles are transformational leadership and servant leadership. Transformational leaders have a crystal clear, well-communicated, inspiring vision of a brighter future that emotionally resonates with others. Because audiences feel positively influenced by a transformational leader’s message, they become followers who incite real change in the form of collective action. Servant leaders (who can also simultaneously be transformational leaders) serve a purpose far greater than themselves (their Why). As people who put others’ needs above their own, they positively influence others to join their cause through their words, actions, and behaviors.
To learn more about becoming the type of leader who fulfills their purpose by using the tenets found in Start with Why, check out these articles on leadership styles, next: