Could Simon Sinek’s Popular TED Talk Be Totally Wrong?

How great leaders REALLY inspire action

Yoav Yechiam
Nov 2, 2017 · 5 min read

Simon Sinek TED Talk is one of the most popular lectures out there. “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” is the 3rd most watched TED talk of all time.

You might remember it by the oft-repeated mantra:

Simon is a great lecturer — not many can argue with that. Nevertheless, I am going to go against the tide to argue that Simon (along with many of his 34 million TED Talk viewers) is wrong. When it comes to success, HOW matters significantly more than WHY.

Simon Sinek’s TED Talk: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Simon provides a few examples: Apple, the Wright brothers, and even Martin Luther King. Companies, ventures, and movements that succeeded because their leaders viewed their challenge from the inside out, starting with ‘why’, contrary to the common conception.

Thus, Simon proposes we make decisions by thinking in this order:

  • Why do we do what we do?
  • How do we do it?
  • What do we do?

His reasons indeed sound very convincing. So how can I claim to prove them wrong?

You see, I am not saying the Wright brothers did not have the right ‘why’. I am saying that so did many other teams who eventually did not succeed. The same goes for the Apple case presented. It looks to be a perfect example of survivorship bias, where adding rationale after the fact puts us in danger of believing that the same rationale will lead to future success.

We humans have a tendency to judge and conceptualize results based on observations of (only) those who came out on top. Neglecting to consider that the lesson to be taught could actually be with the ones who didn’t make it. Simon is doing exactly that when he claims companies’ ‘why’ (their mission statement) is their reason for success. When he does that he is not taking into consideration those companies which might have had a great WHY yet didn’t take the right path and eventually failed.

Let’s look at this from the a different perspective: Airbnb, Tinder, Snapchat and even Facebook. Can you identify a clear ‘why’ that explains why they do what they do? Actually, you probably could, in retrospect. But was it there when they took their first steps? Was that what caused them to reach product-market fit? Let’s be honest, if you had asked Mark Zuckerberg or Brian Chesky (Airbnb) back when they were just beginning “What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? Why do you get out of bed in the morning?” their answers would have probably ranged between getting rich and getting laid….

Simon isn’t completely wrong. The then-startup-now-mammoth companies leading the world do have a clear WHY, and one can argue that these WHYs are what is steering those ships. But that is irrelevant to the 99.99% of the companies out there (a.k.a. us). From visionaries, entrepreneurs, to SMBs and even enterprises, for us the WHY is romantic, but impractical per se.

For most companies, big to small, the best approach for reaching their goals is Strategy, a.k.a. the HOW. Knock yourself out with any WHY you like: “to change the world”, “to challenge the status quo” or “to democratize pet food distribution”. The TED talk viewers didn’t buy WHY Simon said what he said, they bought HOW he said it…

If you view Simon Sinek’s TED talk again, you’ll surely notice that it was the rhetoric, intonation, expressions and language that made the talk. Shouldn’t we have all asked ourselves WHY Simon gave this talk? After all, that was the entire point… Well, I’m guessing most of us got stuck and fascinated by HOW it was presented and looked past that… And in all fairness, the results clearly show success.

You see, the problem is much deeper than a ‘guru’ lecture here or an inspiring “all you have to do” article there. I have nothing against Simon Sinek. He has other great leadership lectures beyond his TED Talk. The problem is the ignorance of translating a vision directly into actions before seriously considering the path. It happens so often because our point of view shows us many successful companies where we understand the concept and vision — the WHY. We also obviously understand WHAT these companies do (UI, features, agile development processes). But how often do we zoom out to look at the paths these companies did not take. Had we done that we would have probably noticed endless options of what to do that were not done. The great Michael Porter is quoted for saying “Strategy is choosing what not to do”. Now let’s be honest, how true is that?

If we stop trying to imitate successful companies and focus more on studying what made companies with great ideas bust, we might have a lot more to learn from. Any company, big or small, has so many WHATs to do (concepts, features, optimizations). Leaders need to acknowledge that, and make the effort to thoroughly strategize HOW they can increase their chance of reaching their goals. Many times a big part of that is the ability and flexibility to iterate and adapt to the market.

As Bono sings “We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong”.

Yoav Yechiam is the Owner and Chief Consultant at Y-PERSPECTIVE a Product Strategy Consulting firm. He is also a lecturer and does pro-bono mentoring for early stage startup.

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