WHY Great Leaders Inspire Action — What If We Can Measure It?

“As it turns out, all the great inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers, they all think, act and communicate the exact same way. And it’s the complete opposite to everyone else. All I did was codify it, and it’s probably the world’s simplest idea. I call it the golden circle.” 
 — Simon Sinek

Simon Sinek’s TED Talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action has been viewed over 26 million times. It’s the 3rd most viewed TED talk of all times. I find Sinek’s Golden Circle an interesting theory. The core of it is that all the great inspired leaders start with WHY. Or as he says himself:

Why? How? What? This little idea explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others aren’t. Let me define the terms really quickly. Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by “why” I don’t mean “to make a profit.” That’s a result. It’s always a result. By “why,” I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? As a result, the way we think, we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in, it’s obvious. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations — regardless of their size, regardless of their industry — all think, act and communicate from the inside out.

For the last 6 years I’ve consciously had over 300 conversations with very diverse individuals, and amongst them great leaders. For instance I’ve met the first female president in the world, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir at her home and listened to her story. The purpose was, and still is, to understand why people do what they do, and to do so in an authentic way. I was not interviewing, I was not recording and I was not keeping any data. I was just listening and observing with full presence.

What I found during those conversation is that most often people, even the leaders, were not driven by a WHY — at least not a conscious WHY. Looking back and connecting the dots, their story may be interpreted as they had a strong WHY, but at the very moment they were making decisions and communicating them they were not consciously acting through some pre-defined purpose. It might have been there, but it was not so conscious at that very moment for their own opinion.

It goes against what Sinek states. Or rather, he says that the most inspiring leaders thought, acted and communicated with WHY — not that they did it consciously. Sinek supports his theory with stories of the world’s most inspiring leaders: Martin Luther King, the Wright Brothers and Apple with Steve Jobs as a leader. I assume he never met those people in person and asked them about why they do what they do. He doesn’t have any data from them to support his theory. It’s just an assumption of what he has experienced as an observer of history, and then he uses neuroscience to back up his theory because it works and makes sense. Sinek is a very charismatic and talented storyteller. He also seems to be good at PR, marketing and sales. But his theory is, in best case, so-called popular science. As far as I know it’s not backed up by any scientific data. It just seems to work and be applicable, and for most people it’s good enough.

But not for me.

With my burning passion for people, storytelling and the question why do you do what you do? I decided to dedicate my M.Sc Thesis at Chalmers University to challenge this theory. I’ve been conducting quantitative data about the most important values of so-called Changemakers, defined as mission driven leaders and/or entrepreneurs who are dedicated to make the future radically better. The data I collect is ranking of 127 values, which are taken from Brian Halls value research and developed further by Jan Mattson and the Swedish company Values Online Leadership Center. On top of that I’ve had qualitative interviews to gain a real depth into their conscious stories and life experiences. Simply, I’ve been trying to understand if the great inspiring leaders do really start with why, as Sinek proposes.

I also conduct data from students at the M.Sc programme Entrepreneurship and Business Design at Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship, where the school’s purpose is “Educating the Future Leaders”.

My initial goal was to compare the results between the students and the Changemakers to see if there were any trends to be found that could help Chalmers educating Future Leaders. My hypothesis was that the Changemakers had a higher level of consciousness, and if it was the case, Chalmers could make consciousness development as a part of their curriculum.

But then I found something else.

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Couple of weeks ago a trend started emerging from my data. There was a significant difference between the Changemakers and the students in terms of values, and even in terms of level of consciousness (if I’m allowed to interpret the data in that way, it’s still in working process). But it wasn’t until I gathered data from my boyfriend (for personal use, as a matter of fact and I did not plan to have it as a part of the study), who is the opposite of me in terms of values and personality, that I understood the there might actually be a direct connection between my data and Sinek’s Golden Circle. So now I’m gathering more data from “ordinary people” to see if this actually holds. But IF it does I might have found a solution to statistically calculate where individuals, companies and communities — or basically everyone — are to be located on the Golden Circle.

I will give you an example of my current data and the analysis I’ve made, represented graphically in the format of a Golden Circle.

Red = Strong 
Orange = Intermediate
Yellow = Weak

My personal results states that I’m strongly driven by the WHY and I know how to perform it. It doesn’t surprise me. I know that I am like that so there is a match.

Then the data supports Sinek’s theory that the most inspiring leaders, the Changemakers, do also start with WHY and have a strong HOW as well to be able to execute their vision. What is though very interesting is that they also have a rather strong higher WHAT (I split every WHAT/HOW/WHY circle in 3 parts, which is grounded in my data of values). What it means, and is of great importance, is that they also are capable of communicating the WHY to the people who merely understand the WHAT. Meaning, they can communicate their vision so most people understand and not only the other WHY people. That is of great importance to be able to inspire people of all levels. (Realizing this is of great importance to me personally, and helps me to understand why I’ve had such a hard time to communicate my ideas so people actually understand what I’m talking about.)

The CSE students are skilled people. In general, they are very good performers and will probably be able to lead any company or organization to success because they know how to do it. They are value-driven, intelligent and experienced. But with current level of consciousness (again, if I’m allowed to interpret it in that way) many of them might not lead humanity through any radical changes. Not yet at least, but that might change of course. They are still young and in the growth phase.

The 3rd group is where I have the least data, so it should be predicted with care. I call it “Others” for now, meaning simply that they are not Changemakers and not CSE students. Those are the people who are living the “normal life”, working 9–5, living in the city where they grew up and are not aspired to change the world. What identifies them (with my current data) is that they are very caring, supporting and it’s important to them to feel membership. They know WHAT they do and also HOW they do it but the WHY is of no importance.

I want to make it clear that this data is not to be understood as Good-Better-Best. It’s not better to have a strong WHY or a strong WHAT, it’s just different. For society it’s important to have the diversity because how would it go for a society with only visionary leaders? How would it go for a company that only could communicate their WHY and not deliver it, because no-one knew HOW to do it or WHAT to do.

It’s an interesting finding and it excites me. As for now, this is of course just a hypothesis and must me challenged with more data and research. But if this really holds, I see a huge potential to apply the core of this in many different settings, but primarily though within leadership, diversity and consciousness development.

So in short, what I’m trying to make sense of here is following:

Simon Sinek explained HOW great leaders inspire action. 
I think I found a way to understand WHY great leaders inspire action and how we can calculate it with numbers.

It can be done for any person, any company and any organization to understand how they think, act and communicate.

I believe that if this works, it will have the potential of making a global impact!