Purpose

There are only two ways to influence peoples’ behavior:  manipulate them or inspire them.  Simon Sinek begins his book Start With Why with this bold declaration.  Not surprisingly, Sinek argues that inspiring people is the preferred option, and proceeds to sketch out a strategy for doing so.  In short, inspiring people begins with knowing your “Purpose”, and discovering your “Why”.

According to Sinek, every organization has a “what”, a “how” and a “why”.  The “what” is usually easy, and that’s what we spend most of our time on.  For example, at Baillie Lumber our “what” is selling hardwood lumber.  Next comes the “how”.  Organizations typically also spend a good amount of time working on their “how”.  The “how” normally has to do with things like organizational structure, methods of going to market or developing products, and various other processes.  That leaves the “why”.  An organization’s “why” is often not so obvious, and as a result often receives less attention.  But, according to Sinek, an organization’s “why” is where the real action is.  It’s the holy grail!  Put simply, your “why” is the ultimate purpose or reason you do what you do.  It’s the cause or belief that really drives the organization, that motivates you to spend so much time on the what and how.  And ultimately, it’s what inspires people.

Now here comes the interesting part.  Sinek argues that people don’t actually buy “what” you do; they buy “why” you do it.  And people don’t work for you because of what you do, but because of why you do it.  According to Sinek, this all happens at the emotional level, at the “gut” or “heart” level, not at the rational, or thinking, level.  Rational arguments come later, simply justifying what our gut or heart tells us to do.

All humans have a non-rational need to belong, to connect to something bigger than themselves.  They want to connect with people and organizations that believe the same things that they do, that share the same cause they do.  Organizations that can articulate their “why”, their core belief or cause, their reason for being, will inevitably attract as customers and employees people who share that “why”.

Sinek offers Apple and Southwest as examples of companies defined by their “why”, not their “what.”  Apple is not fundamentally a computer company, he argues, but a company that challenges the status quo and that offers individuals simple alternatives.  That’s their “why”.  People connect and want to be part of this “why” before they are sold on the various features of Apple’s products (the “what”).  Similarly, Southwest Airlines was not built primarily to be an airline, but to champion the cause of the common man.  Southwest makes air travel cheap, fun and simple for the person who previously drove or took a bus.  Note their tag line, “You Are Free To Move About The Country.”  Championing the cause of the common man.  That’s Southwest’s “why”.

At Baillie, we went through a process of determining our “Purpose”, or our “Why,” over 20 years ago.  Holed up in a condo in South Carolina, we asked ourselves why we exist, and came up with the wrong answer multiple times.  Do we exist to make money?  Yes, but why?  Do we exist to create beautiful things?  Yes, but why do we want to do that?  Well, after many false starts and much soul searching, we finally discovered the purpose that had been driving our company all along:  To Help Others Succeed.  Sounds simple, maybe even trite, but it’s powerful for us.  We strive to run every decision through the grid of does it help our customer succeed?  Our supplier succeed?  Our employee succeed?  Our community succeed?  Our shareholders succeed?  We get it wrong as often as we get it right, but I believe people understand our intentions, and they connect to that.  They want to be part of that at a gut level, whether as an employee, a customer or a supplier.

Take an hour (or a day or a week) and reflect on the “Why,” or the “Purpose”, of your organization.  I believe Simon Sinek is onto something.  If you want to inspire people rather than manipulate them, it’s more important than you think.

One reply

  1. Matt Bissett says:

    Jeff thanks for sharing this! I believe this is such an important concept for a company and an individual to understand, learn and study. If anyone hasn’t done so I would highly recommend Simon Sinek’s books “Start With Why” and “Leaders Eat Last” (those are the two that I have read and studied the most).
    It is amazing to work for a company who has a clear purpose/why and continually tries to improve and promote an environment where they follow their beliefs and help others succeed!

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