Why This Blog is Not Called “WhyistheAnswer”: Simon Sinek and Purpose

Purpose is “in.” Its chief spokesperson is Simon Sinek who argues that the key for how great leaders inspire action is to start with “why” before rippling outward to “how” and what.” It is a great argument, but we find it incomplete. 


We agree that organizations always have to start with core beliefs and purpose. But we wished Sinek applied the same rigor and thoughtfulness towards the “how.” tThe danger is that the “how” tends to be regarded as mere business, operational smarts that are slapped onto the principled core of “why.” But such thinking disconnects “why” and “how” into distinct layers. This problematic thinking leads to organizations that have a fantastic mission – they produce good, meaningful products and services – but are internally dysfunctional and sometimes exhibit morally ambiguous behaviors. A survey of scandals in churches or non-profits will provide ample evidence.

Imagine if one were to ask someone like Sinek, “How do great leaders inspire action?” He would simply respond, “With a great cause – a great ‘why.’” He calls out someone like MLK Jr. and says that 250,000 people showed up on the march to Washington not because of who MLK Jr. was but what his beliefs were. But in an age of transparency where spheres are fusing, who you are – and thus how you behave – has a huge impact on the credibility of the beliefs you espouse. One could argue that the misbehavior of Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and director of Kony 2012, made a huge dent in the outcome of the Kony 2012 campaign. Furthermore, how you lead others, no matter what the mission, can severely impact their willingness to follow you. A Gallup poll found that the number one reason why people quit their jobs is because of their bosses. Furthermore, sometimes “purposeful work” can lead bosses to justify slave-driving their employees all in the name of the “mission,” such as the way academic institutions take advantage of graduate student labor, as Miya Tokumitsu points out in the Jacobn. 

If we were to respond to that question of how great leaders inspire action, we would say, “You need a values-based cause, but that’s just the beginning. If you don’t take it all the way to behavior, especially the behavior of leaders, a disconnect between ‘why’ and ‘how’ could emerge that might cripple the organization.” A human organization that is truly why-driven is at its core driven by values and beliefs. But these values and beliefs have to  systematically and thoroughly animate the entire organization, extending far beyond a purposeful mission statement or product or service, and penetrating behavior, the “hows” of what we do.


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