Simon Sinek Says: Go Forth and Be Fantastic!
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because leadership is not just a theory. It’s a practice.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Author, motivational speaker and leadership semiotician Simon Sinek dropped by The Carlos Watson Show to go long and deep with OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson. Here are some of the best cuts from the longer conversation, which you can listen to in full here.
On the Idea of the Perfect Workplace
Carlos Watson: How do you introduce yourself when you’re meeting someone new? I mean, if someone is trying to understand the work you do, how would you describe the work you do?
Simon Sinek: I say I teach leaders and organizations how to inspire people. And that I wake up every single morning with a very clear sense of a vision, of a world that does not yet exist. A world in which the vast majority of people wake up every single morning, inspired, feel safe wherever they are and end the day fulfilled by the work that they do. And I believe that the best opportunity we have to build that world is leaders. So I’m betting on leaders to help build that world. So I’ve devoted my professional life to help find, support and build the leaders that are going to help build that world.
Sinek: Well, it’s because I’d rather live in a world that’s different to the one we have now. I, like everyone else, am subjected to the whims of leaders. I’ve worked in companies where I didn’t feel like I mattered. And you see it in people. Friends who come home from work and it’s just a job. And for some reason, we’ve treated this idea of loving your job like it’s some sort of lottery. That you go out with your friends and one person says, “I love my job.” And the rest of us go, “You’re so lucky.” Like they won something. And I believe fundamentally that loving our work is a right and not a privilege. And so we can demand that we work in places that make us feel like we matter.
The good news is there’s a bunch of companies that are great examples. I mean, obviously no company is perfect, but there’s a bunch of companies that are fantastic examples of what great leadership looks like, we just need more of them. Many of the companies that I’ve written about, one of my favorites is a company called Barry-Wehmiller run by a man named Bob Chapman in the Midwest of the United States. They make machinery. Big, capital expenditure machines. So when Kimberly-Clark, for example, needs a machine to make toilet paper, this is the company that makes that machine.
But if you ask Bob, “What does your company do?” he says, “We build great people to do great things, and we measure success by how we touch the lives of people.” I mean, I just love that. And when you visit their company, it’s extraordinary. The level of trust that exists, how people get along, it’s just unbelievable. And after I visited his factories for the first time, I turned to him and I said, “I could no longer be accused of being a crazy idealist if what I imagine exists in reality.”
Watson: How did you ultimately decide to really go ahead and really try something different? Can you take us to that?
Sinek: Well, a lot of these things seem sudden, like they happened overnight, and rarely are they. Somebody asked me, “How long did it take you to write Start With Why?” And I said, “Every day of my life, up until that day.” The thing that’s most important to remember is that I didn’t do it alone. I did not have the courage to make the changes I needed to make until a friend of mine said, “I’m worried about you and I’m here for you.”
And that’s really important to remember. We’re social animals, and none of us is strong enough, none of us are smart enough to do this thing called life or career alone. We’re just not that good. And so what’s absolutely imperative is that we have somebody who loves us and that we love, and we’re just as supportive of them to help us on the journey. That’s what gives us the confidence. And that’s what gave me the confidence. It wasn’t me, it was the absolute gratitude I have to somebody who is willing to go on a very difficult journey with me.
Right There in Black and White
Watson: We’re in such an interesting moment here in the world and in the country, and people are asking really profound questions about whether the systems are set up so that a variety of people can pursue the American Dream. And part of the critique is that actually the system’s not, and if we do try and apply one solution disproportionately, that solution’s going to work for the incumbents and it’s not going to work for the challengers.
So if I use your own life as an example, if you were Black Simon Sinek, instead of white Simon Sinek, and you decided that, “I’ve got this idea,” your friend comes to you, you want to try it, do you think you would’ve been received quite as well?
Sinek: Well, if you’re asking about if I’ve been the beneficiary of white privilege, of course, yes. And I think that’s what the Black Lives Matter movement has done — which I think is worthwhile, invaluable, necessary — finally, which has held up a mirror and allowed white America to actually empathize and see what they have ignored for many years.
I think what was so different about the murder of George Floyd.… For all the other stories that made the news, we saw some fuzzy footage and quite frankly, it gave white America the opportunity to say, “Yeah, but we don’t know.” And there’s doubt. “Apparently he was violent.” It allowed us to disconnect. I think what was so different is for the first time ever with multiple crystal clear camera angles, white America saw the entire scene play out from beginning to end.
Which is where I think it’s been emotional for a lot of African Americans. It’s kind of like, “We’ve been trying to tell you this for a long time.” It’s more like exhaustion, but I think that’s what makes this different. I think this holds up a mirror to us and says, “Shit, we’ve been living in, perpetrating and advancing, some on purpose, some accidentally, an unfair system, and it’s time for a correction.” And I think that’s right.
Watson: I agree with you, in many ways, I think that there’s a moment here that’s allowed lots of people to come to the table. And I think we’ve been the beneficiary, as you said, of all being able to see, I hate saying it this way, but see the same eight minutes and 46 seconds. And so I’m sure that there’s some value in that.
The Missing Piece
Sinek: I think one of the biggest mistakes that I’ve made in my thinking, which I still struggle to reconcile, but it is what it is, for years I thought that vision was it. And that if you have a clear sense of vision, then you can advance something bigger than yourself. But the reality is that when we have a foil of something that embodies something we don’t believe in, it’s much easier for us to see the vision.
So take the United States, for example. We can talk about the ideals that our Founding Fathers laid down for us, but only when we see what we don’t want to look like, does it actually motivate us to follow that path. Whether it was the Cold War and we look at the Soviet Union and we go, “Ah, not that,” that helped America stay true to its ideals on a global scale because of the Soviet Union.
And I think if you look at the way the world exists now, that we look at our own history and we look at some of the uncomfortable realities of our society, that we are more likely to follow the vision that was laid down for us when we are faced with a mirror: Here we are, eye to eye with something that makes us uncomfortable that we don’t want to be. So I used to think vision was all you need, but I’ve started to realize that having the opposite is incredibly valuable.
Vision without execution is hallucination, but execution without vision is like a hamster wheel. And you see both. You meet visionary people who achieve nothing and they’re just angry, frustrated people. At the same time, you meet brilliant executors who spend their whole life executing and climbing a corporate ladder and getting every promotion and having every goal. Later in their life when they’re super senior and have more money than they ever dreamed of making, they’re actually depressed and they look back at their life and say, “But what was it all for?” It’s not just for the next bonus. Thats exciting for a few years, but it’s not fulfilling. So I think we have to be careful about saying, “It’s this or that,” it’s this and that.
This is why partnerships matter, because some people are more visionary minded, some people are more operationally minded. It’s not about forcing operations people to be visionary, and it’s not about forcing visionaries to be operations. It’s about working together. That’s what partnerships are. And I’ve never seen a great organization that existed with one person. There’s always a partnership of a visionary and an executor, of a visionary and an operator who work in concert to advance something greater. The visionary needs the operator to get things done and the operator needs the visionary to give their life and their work meaning.
Watson: I love teams as well and I’m always fascinated by how some of these teams come together and how they find a rhythm that may not even have been immediately obvious. What are some of the interesting collaborations or partnerships you’ve come across in your study of leadership?
Sinek: In my own career, I’m surprised by the depth of relationships I have with the military. My grandfather served in World War II, but so did everybody’s grandfather. Nobody in my family served and none of my friends went on to serve after high school or college. So I stumbled into those relationships and I have found incredible love and kinship with those who volunteer to wear uniform.
And I’ve learned more about what it means to be a human being from folks in the military than I have from anybody in business. I’ve hugged more people in uniform than I’ve ever hugged in a suit, I’ve cried with more people in uniform than I’ve ever cried with in a suit. Just the lessons I’ve learned and the depth of humanity and the quality of friendships, I would never have predicted that.
I’ve attempted in my work, in the stories that I tell, in the books that I’ve written, I attempt to tell their stories so that other people can understand who they are. I think they’re misunderstood and misrepresented very often.
Watson: Interesting. And why do you think it is that the folks in the military have so deeply appreciated your work?
Sinek: I think because my work is fundamentally human. It’s not about a culture, it’s not about an industry, it’s about us, and it’s about how we function and how we interrelate. For them, their work is existential. We make decisions and maybe we lose some money for a large corporation. They make decisions and it could cost people their lives.
So when they’re ordered to rush toward the sound of a gun and when they rush toward danger, they do so with two things: one, with the confidence that their leaders would never order them to do something that would put them at unnecessary risk. So: That it’s worth it. And the other reason is deep, deep trust that the person to the left of them and the person to the right of them has their back just as they have the back of the person to the left and the person at the right.
When it’s that, when it’s existential, it exaggerates all of those human lessons. It’s not unique to the military, it’s just easier to see in the military.