Simon Sinek is an expert in leadership and inspiration. His TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action is Currently the third most watched of any of the TED Talks, and his books Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last give a completely new insight into the art of success. The skills of leadership, inspiration and trust he reveals, are intimately tied up with the culture in an organisation. Those skills are not necessarily what people think, he tells Bernardo Moya
I went on a trip to Afghanistan with the United States Air Force to observe its work and learn more about its culture. Everything on our trip went wrong and I was struck by the level of trust the servicemen and servicewomen had for each other. At work we call each other co-workers and colleagues. In the military, they call each other brothers and sisters. There’s a deeper kind of relationship. It got me asking, how can they trust each other more than people trust each other in the private sector? Are they better people? Is it the people, or is it something else?
I started trying to understand them, which led me down the path of understanding where trust actually comes from. I realised trust is not about the people, it’s about the environment. We are social animals and we respond to our environment. When the conditions are right, we naturally trust and co-operate and when the conditions are wrong, when there is no circle of safety, when we actually fear the people with whom we work or we don’t believe that they have our interest in mind, the natural response to those conditions are cynicism, paranoia, mistrust and self-interest.
That’s why the culture of an organisation is so important. If you get the culture right, trust and cooperation are normal. If you get the culture wrong, cynicism, paranoia, mistrust and self-interest are normal.
I can’t tell you how many companies I hear who talk about the problem they have with engagement inside their companies. Their employees aren’t engaged. Well, what do you expect when you use redundancies to balance the books every year? What do you expect when your shareholder is more important than the people who actually work at your company? When a fair weather fan is more important than the players on the team?
You can’t tell people to trust you, but when people feel you share the same values and beliefs, it lays the foundation for a trusting relationship to exist. The most trusted organisations stand for something. There’s an expressed set of values and beliefs that they uphold. This is the basis upon which we trust them. Without that, just being consistent only makes you reliable. There’s a difference between trust and reliability. If you behave in a way consistent with your values then people will say you are trustworthy because you become predictable and recognisable. Before any of that can happen, there has to be a foundation of values and beliefs that a leader can operate in.
For example, you’re standing in the lift and you’re running late for a meeting, the doors start to close and somebody starts running for the lift. What do you do? Many of us shrug, and apologise, and make a funny face, but we don’t actually hold the doors open. Well, leadership means you actually consider the person who’s running for the lift, not just you being late for your meeting. Leadership is the ability to consider the other people around you, not just your own priorities.
Modern business practices that are ‘normal’ today really come out of the 80s and 90s. They were boom years. A lot of strategies and tactics built for short-term gain in boom years don’t create stability or healthy organisations. In fact, some leadership techniques so often taught are not really leadership. They’re management. Leadership is a human enterprise and requires things like listening. How do you actually listen? How do you practise empathy, which means considering somebody else in the equation?
These human skills are the assets that will be valuable into the next generation. They are much more important than ever before, especially as so many of the ways we do business is from behind screens. Leadership happens in the hallways, not behind a desk. People who have a genuine curiosity for others, practice empathy, are good listeners, are good at asking questions, are willing to sacrifice their interests for the good of others, enjoy seeing others grow – these are the skills that, when practised, will really put someone far and away above and beyond in their coming years and lead to success in the future.
Success is a team sport. You don’t have to know all the answers and you don’t have to pretend you do. Anything you want to achieve is going to take the commitment of other people – and you can’t buy commitment. No amount of money can buy loyalty. It takes committed and loyal people who are inspired by a vision and want to contribute their talents to see a shared enterprise advance.
Some people who have success start to forget all the help they had along the way. They can forget the relationships they fostered and built, and start to believe they’re special. Success can be a dangerous thing. That’s why humility is special. Whether it’s at an organisational or individual level, we instinctively like humble people because they appreciate that their individual success is the result of the help and support of many people. Companies that have humility recognise their individual success is the result of all the hired people who work there and all the customers who gave to them. They don’t think it’s just their genius. Remember: people don’t trust you when you offer your help. People trust you when you ask for help from them.
I like the idea of people waking up every morning to think about what they can do for someone else. Imagine going to work, where everybody you work with woke up that morning to think how they could help you be better at your job. How you can grow. How you can become more self-confident. How they can help you learn new skills and how they can offer you an opportunity to help them when they’re struggling. What an amazing opportunity. Imagine a world in which people wake up every day, and come to work thinking about each other.
Well, I wake up every single morning to inspire people to do what inspires them. I know it sounds corny and cheesy but it’s real. It says on my bathroom mirror ‘Today you will inspire someone’. I’m literally reminded of it every morning when I look in the mirror. It is what I believe and I’ve surrounded myself with people who share my vision of a world in which the vast majority of people wake up every single morning inspired to go to work, feel safe and cared for when they’re there, and return home at the end of the day fulfilled by the work that they do. Anything I can do to advance that vision is, to me, worth doing.
At a glance: Simon Sinek
Simon Sinek was born in Wimbledon on 9 October 1973, before moving to South Africa as a child
Returned to London, later moving to Hong Kong and settling in New Jersey
Gained a degree in cultural anthropology, later attending City University to study law but left to go into advertising
Published Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action in 2009 at the age of 36, a book which topped America’s ‘CEO read’ best-sellers list
In January 2015, his TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, was #3 in the most popular talks of all time
Sinek lives in New York and teaches strategic communication at Columbia University
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