Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek October 30, 2012

Why do Apple, Southwest Airlines, and Harley-Davidson have cult-like followings? What separates them from their competitors? They start with WHY.

My first encounter with Simon Sinek was his famous TED Talk. He briefly shared his concept of the Golden Circle and how it applied to businesses today. A few weeks ago, I saw him speak live at Catalyst Conference and was impressed with his presentation of the same subject matter.

His book, Start With Why, encapsulates his philosophy and is a must-read for leaders and visionaries. He begins with the Golden Circle (as illustrated). His thesis states that the difference between great companies and their competitors is the fact that they start with WHY as opposed to WHAT. His classic example is Apple and the computer market.

Apple isn’t the only company that sells computers. Nor are they the only company that sells good computers. You could make an argument that on some points other competitors produce better computers. Yet Apple creates a cult-like following not generated by any other company. Why? Because Apple knows their WHY and starts from there.

Here’s what most computer companies sound like:

“We make great computers” (WHAT).

“They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly” (HOW).

Wanna buy one?

Apple, on the other hand, starts with WHY:

“Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently” (WHY).

“The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly” (HOW).

“We happen to make great computers” (WHAT).

Wanna buy one? (p 40-41)

Sinek uses the Golden Circle as template that pierces the fog surrounding great companies like Apple, Southwest Airlines, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. All companies that stand out above and beyond their field. We know there’s something that makes them stand out above the fray. Sinek uses the Golden Circle to identify their secret.

Once that’s established, Sinek uses the rest of his book as an opportunity to talk about the power of WHY, why many companies fail to capitalize on their WHY, and how to identify your WHY. It’s all abstract, without simple guidelines or how-to’s that many love to walk away with. And yet, his book is absolutely priceless for those wanting to differentiate their lives or their businesses from the fray of the marketplace.

Of particular interest to me was his discussion of the way the human brain is wired. The two main portions of the brain are the neocortex and the limbic brain. The neocortex is the outer portion of the brain. It controls language and rational thought. It’s how we form words and communicate. And yet it’s not where we make our decisions. Our decisions, our most primal motivations, come from the limbic brain, the inner portion. It controls emotions and all human behavior, but it has no capacity for human language (56). If you’ve ever made a decision based on your “gut,” then you’ve decided from your limbic brain in a way that you couldn’t describe in words.

Here’s where things gets really interesting. When we use words, manipulations, or offer our products based on rational arguments, we are describing our WHAT to the neocortex. But decisions aren’t made there. Decisions are made in the limbic brain, where the HOW and WHY reside. Great companies are companies that start with WHY because they appeal to the core of the human decision making process. They penetrate through the fog of WHAT and appeal to the WHY, to the part of the human brain that makes decisions. As Sinek says, “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. A failure to communicate WHY creates nothing but stress or doubt” (58).

This is where the power of WHY really takes flight. If you’re interested in shaping or influencing human behavior, you absolutely must now the power of WHY and the limbic brain. Too many people, organizations or churches rely on the WHAT to drive their success. To effect real influence, you must speak to the WHY. WHY do you do the things you do? WHY does your organization exist?

Sinek finishes with some good advice on how to discover your WHY, and the positive affects it will have on your life and career. Discovering your WHY makes you more than just an effective leader. It makes you a charismatic leader. “Energy motivates but charisma inspires. Energy is easy to see, easy to measure and easy to copy. Charisma is hard to define, near impossible to measure and too elusive to copy. All great leaders have charisma because all great leaders have clarity of WHY; and undying belief in a purpose or cause bigger than themselves” (134).


1. This book is an incredible reminder of the truths we can learn from the “secular” world. Although Sinek is most likely not a Christ follower, his insight into the human condition is incredible. There were numerous points that he made that speak to the way God designed us. Although Sinek might not agree with it, I see God’s fingerprints are all over the truths of this book.

2. Too many churches rely on WHAT to fuel their growth. A church in some ways is like any other organization. Churches can get caught in the cycle of relying on WHAT to market themselves to the world. They can advertise their great facilities, high energy programs or remarkable staff to set themselves apart from other churches. It’s nothing but WHAT.

3. Churches need to rediscover their WHY. This can be a little tricky, especially since we can all point to several Bible verses to back up our beliefs. But the question is worth asking: WHY does the church exist? To glorify Christ? To be a witness to what Christ did through his death and resurrection? To make disciples of all nations? I think all are valid WHYs (with Bible verses to back them up), but they still need to be captured and communicated in a way that inspires action. Here are some WHYs that aren’t found in Scripture but are used by too many churches: to continue the tradition of a long-standing congregation, to promote family-friendly activities, to teach the Bible (easy now, don’t stone me), or to promote the platform of the pastor. However and whatever you describe your WHY, I think the reason that many churches are dead and dying is because they lost their WHY, the reason they exist.

4. When churches market themselves, they need to start with WHY. Playing off of the last point, how do we present ourselves to prospective members? What do we advertise? Yesterday I spoke for a few minutes at our Discover Mt Vernon class, where prospective members find out more about our church. Looking back at my notes from the previous session, I realized that I had started my pitch with WHAT, not WHY. I fell into the trap. So yesterday, I started with WHY we exist: we’re a part of the movement that’s changing the world. We’re about changing lives and changing the world. That’s a much better selling point than “great facilities, new environment, contemporary worship.”

5. Once you discover your God-given WHY, your life takes on a new level of purpose. Sinek speaks to reality that we’re all made for a purpose. I believe that purpose comes from God. Once you drill down and discover what that purpose is, you’ll find a whole new reality of living. I’m still working on capturing my WHY from my limbic brain to my neocortex, where I have the use of language. But here’s my first attempt. My WHY is to inspire others to reach their full potential in Christ. That’s what I love to do. That’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s what gives me the most joy. I do that through preaching, blogging, personal interactions, and training others. When I get to be a part of someone taking a step towards their full potential in Christ, my soul sings. That’s what I want to do my entire life.

QUESTION: What’s the WHY for the church? WHY does the church exist?

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  • lynne

    Thought provoking words. Sounds like a book worth reading. You can really apply this to so many areas of life. I plan to share it at work and challenge to doctors to re-think their approach to their practice. Thanks for sharing this.