Why Simon Sinek sucks

You’ve heard of Simon Sinek right? He’s a motivational speaker. Slash marketing consultant.

Earlier last year he clumsily insulted an entire generation like some begrudging Uncle. The generation was millennials (of course) and they were obviously not too impressed by his lazy characterisations.

Anyhoo, before he was insulting millions of people in the name of viral traction, he created a business model. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last five or six years you’ll doubtless be aware of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. Now this may sound like a nasty medical condition, but it is in fact a model that describes three things: why your company does what it does (why it exists); how it does this; and what the nitty gritty end product or service is that you provide.

If you’ve not seen Mr Sinek’s Golden Circle, have a look at the movie below and pop back in 5 mins.

Back? Excellent!

Did you enjoy that? Of course you did. He used words like ‘neocortex’ and ‘limbic’ to impress you; he has a catchy American accent (he’s from Wimbledon, West London, UK); and it’s an entertaining talk. It all seems so smart… yet so simple!

Simon’s presentation skills (honed in, not surprisingly, the advertising world) are excellent and his performance almost oscar-worthy. Scratch the surface though, and this was one of the most shallow Ted Talks (despite being one of the most watched) with a huge amount of style over substance.

Simon’s Ted Talk seems to prove that “inspirational leaders start with why”. If you have a meaningful, passionate “why” in your company that’s the thing people will remember, and that’s the thing that will strike them in the heart and grasp their attention. Before you sell them your products.

However it’s all a bunch of horse sh*t. Whilst not quite a complete scam, his Golden Cirlce is over-valued & over-dramatised. Here’s why…

Why Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle is over-rated

How many times have you seen people give a presentation quoting Sinek’s Golden Circle? I’m sure, like me, countless amounts. Businessmen and brand ‘experts’ ride along on Sinek’s coattails, passing off the Golden Circle as their own, as if it’s some kind of scientific silver bullet and a must-have for any ambitious business. Just before they slip their hand into your wallet for payment of a shiny new brand platform or some such similar paper document. Yet another Powerpoint presentation that will be looked at by the few and ignored by the many.

Think back to when you’ve seen people present the Golden Circle, what case studies did they use as shining examples of the Golden Circle in action? Don’t tell me… Apple…. Netflix…? Thought so.

And therein lies Simon’s scam!

You hopefully don’t believe that prior to building Apple, or Netflix, the founders sat down and planned a “why”. A raison d’etre. A 3 point plan of why, how and what in a nice powerpoint. Of course they didn’t. They were busy building their businesses, failing, pivoting, learning and refining. Sinek’s model is retro-fitted to ventures that have already succeeded!

When Simon Sinek passes off Apple as being the perfect example of “his” Golden Circle he’s retro-fitting the model onto a business that was already successful long before his ass came along!

The only clear example Sinek gives of his model is Apple. The only clear example of a good “why” that Sinek mentions in his speech is Apple’s “challenge the status quo”. However this is not only Apples “why”, it’s the “why” of many other companies. Every company that aims to innovate within their category could follow this mantra.

When Sinek is able to quote Apple as the bearer of this message it doesn’t sound like marketing bullshit, it sounds like religious zeal wrapped up in a TED Talk and an Apple Fanboy’s wet dream. Stick it on to any other company and it suddenly smells like it might just be a pile of marketing bullshit. Not always of course! If a company can genuinely prove their “why” is running through the veins of every member of staff, then of course it’s credible.

However, no one bought an Apple product thinking “they challenge the status quo, I’m buying one!” They bought the Apple product because it works seamlessly & looks amazing. It’s the reflection of one man’s passion in a product, nothing to do with challenging status quo.

Here’s the interesting part

I’ve searched online and seen very few examples of Golden Circles for companies (that are not Apple or a handful of others). I have however seen plenty of utterly dreadful attempts — people that seem to have completely misunderstood the model, particularly the “why” part.

It’s simple to retro-fit this model to a successful, unique phenomenon like Apple, and to do so in a dramatic manner that makes for a Ted Talk and viral success! And that, frankly, is why it’s a load of over-rated boll*cks.

Could it be that the Golden Circle is not so simple to retro-fit to any old business? Could it be that the Golden Circle needs the drama and pomp of Apple to give the jaw-dropping effect of Sinek’s Ted Talk?

So is the Golden Circle actually useful at all?

1. When you’re launching a brand new business?

Answer: NO!

If you’re launching a new business from scratch and pay a brand expert a huge pot of money to craft you a ‘brand platform’ or ‘brand hierarchy’ or ‘brand strategy’ then you’re essentially wasting your money. Because…

a) Your business, in today’s climate, WILL have to pivot and iterate to find long-term, sustainable success. That means the “why”, “how” and “what” you just paid a small fortune for will mean absolutely cock-all in a matter of months after launch.

b) You, or other stakeholders in your company — especially the one who sanctioned the payment of the brand platform — will insist on sticking to THAT PLAN. At all costs. No one likes to lose face. The HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinions) decides.

However, a certain mini bastardisation of the Golden Circle can (and should) be used in the creation of a new MVP (if your business is being built according to to lean methods) but think of it as a short exercise:

  • Who will be the target of your MVP?
  • Why should people care?
  • What do you want users to do?

If you can honestly answer the above 3 points for your new MVP you may just have landed on a decent idea.

2. Is the Golden Circle useful when you’re trying to shape the future of an existing brand that’s lost its way?

Answer: NO!

Let’s say you’re CEO at Company X, or a high level stakeholder at a company that maybe needs a shot in the arm, or a new direction to help you get through the next 5–10 years. A boost to help you solidify your place, your role, in this brave new world of internationalisation and digitalisation. You really don’t want to put all your hopes (not to mention cash that could go into wages, R&D, real-life experiments etc and many other more honourable activities) into a Golden Circle Powerpoint. That’s just too risky.

Note: If you’re wondering what said CEO might want to do instead… he could stress test some potential hypothesis’, different directions, new products or services in a controlled and low-risk manner. From an MVP that’s ready to validate on a small scale (on a small budget) hopefully one such venture will help write the next chapter for Company X. You simply can’t plan a brand for the long-term using a fixed, printed, strategy. It doesnae work laddie! There’s too many unknowns in the future and the world is moving just too damn fast.

3. Is the Golden Circle useful when you’re planning a Marketing or Advertising Campaign?

Answer: Maybe, I guess.

If you’re a company that still has traditional marketing and advertising processes in place then the Golden Circle may be a decent exercise for you. It can help categorise, rationalise and simplify your brand voice. Companies who are using their “why” to communicate their business to consumers (in conversations, tone of voice, adverts etc) could perform better. If they have a credible “why” in their DNA. Not all businesses do, they just have products that work and fill a need — simple as that.

Remember kids… “Advertising is the price you pay for being unremarkable” — Robert Stephens

4. Can you use the Golden Circle to take a mini-health / compass check of your business?

Answer: Yes!

Think about the Golden Circle as an exercise in taking stock. Not the stock lying in pallets in the factory, I mean taking stock as in taking a deep breath, looking around, smelling the coffee. Stop to look at your business from the outside-in for a moment and being brutally honest to find out what “why” is in your company’s DNA. This isn’t easy. You might struggle to find a credible why. And be prepared for that “why” to change in the future. The “why” that put your business in it’s current position may not be the same “why” you have at present. Flexibility and rapid ability to change keep you top of the food chain.

Russell Clark is a Product Manager and partner at Sweden’s leading service design agency — Humblebee.