Want to be successful? Think like a leader

Anthropologist Simon Sinek explains how great innovating leaders inspire the masses. And how they can drive their companies

nico_webWhat do Martin Luther King, the Wright brothers and Apple have in common? The way they think, act and communicate. In great leaders that inspire the masses, this is guided by a “why-how-what” logic. A thought pattern that is the complete opposite of the way that almost everyone else behaves, which, according to British Simon Sinek, has deep roots in the human mind. It is divided into three main parts to make up what he calls the Golden Circle. The outermost part of the model corresponds to “what”, and is the neo-cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational and analytical thoughts and language. The inner circles, the “how” and “why”, make up the limbic section, which is where our behaviour, emotions and decision making take place, but it has no capacity for language.

Have you ever been talking to someone who is speaking rationally, presenting the facts and figures, but something just doesn’t feel right, even if you can’t put your finger on exactly what? Or have you ever made a gut decision, even though you don’t really have much to back your decision up? Well, the mystery has been solved. I’m sorry to disappoint you, these are not decisions from the “soul” or “heart”, they are only directions of thought: one is right and one is wrong.

The right one is the one inspiring leaders use. They develop an argument, an idea or a project by always starting from the right place, from why. It sounds trivial, but if you do not know why you do something, how can you persuade someone else to believe in you, to buy your product or, more importantly, to be a part of what you do?

According to Sinek’s approach, people don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it. Let’s consider, for example, a company in the plastics segment. Like the majority of companies and people, it takes a classic approach to communication, namely: “We make fantastic machines (what). Well designed, energy efficient, precise, fast (how). Would you like to buy one?” An inspiring leader takes a different approach: “Our challenge is to make companies more competitive (why). We believe in innovation and in sustainability, and we focus on market oriented solutions (how). This is why we build excellent machines (what)”.

If you have any doubts, it is the same approach the giant Apple took. It started out to make computers and then it became a trendsetter in MP3 players, mobile phones and tablets. “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo,” Apple says. “We believe in thinking differently (why). We make our products simple to use and user friendly (how). This is why we make great computers (what)”.

And the approach works. The people who identify with “challenging the status quo” want to buy Apply no matter what the product: they don’t buy the “what”, but the “why”.

Apple’s customers include a small percentage of innovators (about 2.5% of the market), who make instinctive decisions, guided by what they believe in. These are the people who spend hours in line to buy an iPhone on launch day, when they could simply go to the shop the next week and pull one off the shelf. They do it for themselves, because they want to be first. After the innovators come the early users, another 13% of the market. The masses buy later, only after they have heard positive comments from the “pioneers”.

The law of dissemination of innovation tells us that mass acceptance of an idea is achieved only when it reaches 15-18% of market penetration. So who should a company do business with? Not with just anyone who needs the product, but with the people who believe in what the company itself believes – the innovators and early users –, because those are the ones who will help move the masses, and therefore continue to lead.

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