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Why Start with Why?

Simon Sinek begins this book with a simple premise: “a naturally occurring pattern, a

way of thinking, and acting and communicating that gives some leaders the ability to inspire

those around them.” (Sinek 1). Throughout the book, he identifies this way of thinking as starting

with why. What results is a book, though with a very beneficial message for leaders and

innovators, fails in delivering the message in a clear, concise way. Furthermore, there are clear

flaws in his argument and an alternative interpretation in many of his examples that miss far

more valuable lessons to be learned. I see the overall message as a positive one, something that

can be incorporated into my leadership style as a cadet and student as well as an Army officer

and professional in the future. However, the specifics that Mr. Sinek uses, I take much issue

with.

Beginning with his contention of starting with why, Simon Sinek sets the tone for a very

applicable message. “There are a few leaders who choose to inspire rather than manipulate…”

(Sinek 37). This begins his discussion about the importance of inspiring one’s base, whether that

be subordinates or customers. Inspiration is important and does cultivate a certain sense of trust

and loyalty not matched by any other form of leadership that Sinek mentions. However, he runs

into his first mistake when he points to the success of Apple as a case study. Sinek believes that

Apple starts with why. He states, “Aple’s WHY, to challenge the status quo…” (Sinek 43).

Apple’s “Why” is to challenge the status quo, according to Sinek. However, there is a far more

important lesson, I believe, to learn from this study than what Simon Sinek believes. In the 1983

keynote speech by Steve Jobs regarding the famous 1984 commercial by Apple, he states, “It is

now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run

for its money…Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information
age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?" Clearly, Apple was running a campaign driven as

much by Sinek’s characterization of fear, as Steve Jobs capitalized on the looming threat of

monopoly, as did the ad itself. However, there is a far better explanation of Apple’s success than

what Sinek states. Simplicity. Appealing to the lowest common denominator. Sinek himself

alludes to this as he states that when the Mac first came out, it had, “…an operating system based

on a graphical user interface and not a complicated computer language” (Sinek 43). So why read

deeper into Apple’s motivation? Because Simon Sinek himself is using one of his own identified

manipulation tactics: aspiration. Sell why first, and you’re on the right track! But due to this, an

important lesson is missed, one that can be applied to every sector of leadership. Simplicity and

conciseness is a valuable tool. Even in our MSL301 course, the importance of conciseness of

mission statements in an OPORD are emphasized. OPORDs that are many pages long at the

brigade or division level end up being hastily written down notes on a piece of paper at the squad

level. But that’s not a bad thing, it’s something more important than why. It’s the value of

simplicity and a broad message. As a current research team leader on a Bioinformatics research

group, I see the value of simplicity on reporting my findings to my professor, who is primarily a

biology professor. As a squad leader, I understand the value of simplicity on disseminating

orders during FTX to my squad in a timely way. In any case, Simon Sinek both misses an

important point in his own case study as well as fails to convey his point to its fullest. It comes

off as a motivational speech rather than a true method of leadership.

However, credit where credit’s due, the overarching point he attempts to make is one that

is valuable. Regarding interacting with customers or clients, there is real value in attempting to

win their trust rather than their wallets. As Simon Sinek points out, the part of the brain

responsible gut decisions, “…just feel right.” Humans just care more about feelings than facts
simply because of the brain’s way of processing things (Newell). And I believe that’s an

important thing to consider when leading people. While most prevalent in public policy, the use

of logos, the use of facts in rhetoric, falls short when compared to pathos, the use of emotion, or

ethos, the use of authority. As Sinek would describe it, logos is the “what” while pathos is the

“why.” As a leader and future officer, this is an important consideration to make as the big

picture is sometimes important to disseminate to subordinates. Not only as it helps put into

context why they might be sitting at a patrol base in the cold for hours, but it also helps them

accomplish the mission as both a unit and an individual. If the goal is clearly defined, it’s far

better for both the morale of a soldier and their performance in the mission. The commander’s

intent in an OPORD is one such example of “why” in a military context.

Another major point Sinek uses is the importance of subordinates in one’s organization.

He says, “What all great leaders have in common is the ability to find good fits to join their

organization – those who believe what they believe.” (Sinek 93). While definitely an important

point, again, he doesn’t convey is point properly enough, nor with enough nuance. There is

importance in having good fits as subordinates. This can’t be more clear than the fact that every

company requires job interviews and almost every University as an essay portion. There is a

notion in the Western world that you should be a good fit for your company or your University.

However, consider that in the Asian world, in many organizations such as Samsung or top

Universities such as University of Beijing or University of Seoul, the opposite is true. That a

solid resume and great work ethic are valued more than being a good fit. There’s a great

importance for passion, it’s true. But I disagree with the idea that every member of an

organization, even most, need to be passionate about their organization. Ignoring the feasibility

of the monumental task of employing yuppy, spirited, and whimsical employees drooling over
the big picture and the passion of working for the organization, there’s a point where passion for

one’s work ends up as a driving factor rather than passion for the person or idea you’re working

for. Wernher von Braun, the man responsible for the US defeating the Soviets in the Space Race,

is a clear example of this. Before defecting to the US, Dr. Braun was a member of the Nazi party

in Germany, yet he was disinterested entirely in politics. He even wrote, “to us, Hitler was still

only a pompous fool with a Charlie Chaplin moustache" (Spangenburg 33). Yet he went on to

develop the V2 rockets in World War II, the foundational piece of technology that would go into

the Saturn V rocket, the very rocket that propelled Americans into space. When picking

subordinates, there’s a fine line between the importance of loyalty and passion versus talent. In

some cases, passion for one’s work is far more important than passion for one’s organization.

In the Army, the same line can be drawn but in a different way. The Army stands as one

of the United States’ lines of defense as well as force projection throughout the globe. There are

many who joined the Army out of a sense of duty. However, that sense of duty varies

throughout. For some, it’s a sense of duty towards family, such as tradition. For others, it’s the

patriotic sense of duty. And for yet others, they’re doing it for money, whether that be college

money or because it’s their main source of income. There’s a fair chance that for many of them,

their motivation will not change, meaning the stars and stripes waving majestically will invoke

different levels of inspiration depending on the soldier. Yet, if they can do their job well and are

able to work as a team in accordance with the Army values, does it matter why they joined? I

contend that the important thing when dealing with subordinates isn’t passion but purpose and

talent. If they have the means to do their job well and the ability to carry out that job in

accordance with the values and regulations of the organization in question, then hire them! Not

everyone will be passionate and not everyone has to be passionate. There’s camaraderie in, “the
suck” as much as passion, if not more. Engineering students at Purdue bond over the difficulty of

their school work and trainees at Basic Training bond with each other over the stress of waking

up at 4am and getting smoked by Drill Sergeants. There will always be camaraderie, whether

engineered or natural, due to the nature of humans. Humans are social animals and will strive to

find common ground in anything that requires them to work together. I believe the importance is

tapping into that common ground rather than forcing it or manufacturing it.

Ironically, for a book titled, “Start with Why,” I believe Sinek’s greatest point lies in his

contention on knowing HOW. The second ring of his Golden Circle, he points as very important

to “WHY” type leaders. He states, “Although so many of [WHY-type leaders] fancy themselves

visionaries, in reality most successful entrepreneurs are HOW-types.” (Sinek 141). He goes on to

explain the importance of WHY-HOW partnerships. That although the WHY-type supplies the

inspiration and passion, the HOW-type actually develops the idea into a workable model. For

every Bill Gates, there’s a Paul Allen. I completely agree with this sentiment and believe it to be

an important characteristic of leadership. I remember when I went to my scholarship board for

ROTC, I asked Sergeant Arbic how I, if I become a 2LT, would lead my troops and work with

my NCOs. He told me that although his Lieutenant would come up with the plan, he would

extensively work with the plan and adjust it based on his experience and knowledge. This is

perfect example of WHY working with HOW. I think most people have heard of the Lieutenant

who doesn’t know anything, flexes his power as an officer, and doesn’t listen to his NCOs, even

if they haven’t met such a person in real life. Understanding how different types of leaders work

together is important in avoiding such a stereotype in leadership. That although I may come up

with the idea and feel strongly about this course of action, it’s important to consult others who
may have more experience in carrying out missions or managing soldiers to make sure the vision

I have is properly carried out.

Even outside of the Army, a headstrong leader who believes only in his vision and not

those around him who have the numbers and the facts is doomed to fail as much as a meek leader

who doesn’t have a vision, maybe even more so. Or going to the less extreme variant, one should

learn to trust his or her lower level leadership or their partners.

In conclusion, Simon Sinek paints an optimistic, simplistic view of management and

leadership. While he fails at his case studies and the nuances of his argument, there are very

important lessons to be learned throughout his book. He’s not a concise writer, nor the most

articulate, but his message is something that is important to any leader out there. I think reading

this has let me reflect on the lessons I’ve learned as well as challenge some of my ideas about

leadership. Perhaps he should take his own advice and leave the actual writing to a HOW-type

but he brings forward an important message for future leaders to think about.

Citations

Sinek, S. (2013). Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action.

London: Portfolio/Penguin.

Jobs, S. (2006, April 01). Retrieved November 19, 2017, from

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSiQA6KKyJo

Segall, K. (2012, June 15). The secret of Apple's success: simplicity . The Guardian.

Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/money/2012/jun/15/secret-

apple-success-simplicity
Newell, T. (2015, December 5). Feelings Are Not Facts: A Dangerous Confusion [Web

log post]. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/terry-

newell/feelings-are-not-facts-a_b_8726718.html

Spangenburg & Moser. 2009. Wernher von Braun, Revised Edition. Infobase Publishing.