Are You a Visionary – or a Follower? Here's How to Step Up
Visionaries know why they get out of bed each day. Do you? Ethnographer and leadership expert Simon Sinek explains how to find direction and fulfillment in your personal and professional life.
Simon O. Sinek is an author best known for popularizing the concept of "the golden circle" and to "Start With Why," described by TED as "a simple but powerful model for inspirational leadership all starting with a golden circle and the question "Why?"'. He joined the RAND Corporation in 2010 as an adjunct staff member, where he advises on matters of military innovation and planning. His first TEDx Talk on "How Great Leaders Inspire Action" is the 3rd most viewed video on TED.com. His 2009 book on the same subject, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (2009) delves into what he says is a naturally occurring pattern, grounded in the biology of human decision-making, that explains why we are inspired by some people, leaders, messages and organizations over others.
He has commented for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, FastCompany, CMO Magazine, NPR, and BusinessWeek, and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, BrandWeek, and IncBizNet.
Simon Sinek: I don’t know when it happened in the history but we’ve become obsessed with the concept of having a vision, right. And there’s this overwhelming pressure on entrepreneurs or any of us for that matter that we all have to have a vision. People even ask us so what’s your vision? You know what’s your vision in your job? What kind of vision do you want to build or follow? And at the end of the day we’re not all visionaries. We don’t all have big change the world kind of visions. And even if we have some sense of it very few of us are really capable or able of articulating that vision in words so clearly than others could imagine that same world that we imagine.
Sometimes it’s just a feeling. And so I think it puts an unfair stress and an unfair burden on all of us that we have to have a vision. I don’t know. I just want to go to work and be happy and feel like my life and my work is valuable. Do I need more than that? But I do believe we have to find a vision. We have to have direction. We have to have a north star. We have to know where we’re going. It doesn’t have to be the direction we set. It can be the direction that somebody else sets. So it’s very important for us to find a leader or find a company or find a vision in whom we believe so that our work is contributing to building that. So in the civil rights era some may not have been able to clearly articular the vision that they imagined.
But Martin Luther King did. And so for the rest of us we said I’m following him. I’m following that vision. That’s the vision I believe in. And that’s the point. We should all find a vision that we believe in. We should find common direction and then that vision can become ours. But we don’t have to invent it and we don’t have to originate it. But we absolutely have the responsibility to find a person, company or other entity out there, another person or organization that puts in towards a vision that we absolutely believe in and would commit our blood and sweat and tears to help build.
If we do not have that fire in our belly the way we go about igniting it is not actually to set out on a journey of self-discovery and do everything by ourselves but rather to ask for help. The whole point is that we are better together. I sort of joke about the fact that there’s an entire section in the bookshop called self-help but there’s no section in the bookshop called help others. At the end of the day it’s not about how I can find the job of my dreams. The question is is how can I help my friends find a career of endless fulfillment. It’s not about how I can lose ten pounds. It’s how can I help my friend that’s somebody I love live a healthy lifestyle. And the amazing thing is is that when we’re willing to ask for help or when we’re willing to set ourselves out there to help others that in itself helps us solve our own problems. So the irony is is the way to ignite the fire in our bellies is to help others ignite the fire in theirs. And in so doing we will find the thing that excites us.
People often ask me for good examples of vision, you know. And I don’t believe vision should be something that is ethereal. It should be something that lives in our imaginations. I believe visions and positionings or whatever you want to call them – I like to call it the why. It’s why we get out of bed every morning. It’s why our organization exists. And one of my favorite expressions of the why is the Declaration of Independence. You know why does America exist? Well we actually declared it. We actually declared why we needed our own country. Why we needed to separate from Great Britain. And we said because we had a simple belief. We believed that all men were created equal. That every single one of us was entitled, endowed with these unalienable rights amongst which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In other words, a north star was set for this country. And when we are at our natural best we are working hard to provide equality for all. Women’s suffrage. Civil rights. Gay rights. The ability for everybody to go to school.
The ability for every child to have a doctor. This is what when we are at our natural best and we’re trying to figure it out. None of the systems are perfect. But my goodness, when we try hard, when we’re trying to advance the equality of all that is when America is actually America. And we know that to be the case because it’s not up for debate. It’s because it was written down for us. And so great organizations they should also declare why we need them to exist. Because it certainly ain’t their product because none of them have a product that’s that special that we have to have it and we can’t get it from someone else. And even if they did it’s temporary. And that’s the point. The product ain’t it. It’s the declaration. It’s the reason why we need you to exist. It’s your idealism and your ambition for the world in which you operate that you hope to advance. Thomas Jefferson said himself the Declaration of Independence, the statement that he had was for the whole world but America would take it upon themselves to lead, to try to be the experiment. So too should be the visions of companies. The visions that we have should be for every company, for everyone.
But we will take it upon ourselves to make our organization the example of what great looks like. I love the Declaration of Independence and it is written in such a perfect form too. It doesn’t start by complaining. It starts by idealizing. And then it gets into all of the things that are in the way of this ideal and that’s what we set out to overcome.
Do you know why you get out of bed in the morning? According Simon Sinek (ethnographer, leadership expert, and the official mascot for optimism), answering "because I have to" isn’t quite cutting the mustard.
Finding your purpose in life is an insurmountable task – worse than that, it’s a motivational poster catchphrase that’s difficult to find any authenticity in. Which is why Sinek doesn’t recommend you jump from zero to visionary in one leap. He’s the first to admit it’s daunting, and in this video he calls us out for being obsessed with visionaries. From Steve Jobs and Elon Musk to Ariana Huffington and Bill Gates, we have to crane our necks to look up at these cultural gods of innovation who have changed and are changing our world. How do you even step one foot up a mountain that big?
What if, at the outset, purpose wasn’t about finding yourvision, but finding a vision? In Sinek’s view, we are under no obligation to be great thinkers and leaders, but we are almost bound by a contract of respect for one another to find a person, a company or a cause that we believe in and can help build, to improve the lives of all society. Is it amoral to aimlessly live out our life expectancies when we could be contributing?
Sinek is passionate about something usually only patriots, politicians and historians get hyped over: the Declaration of Independence. He adores this document because it doesn’t just announce the fact that America exists, but it declares exactly why America exists, something Sinek says most companies overlook. There are likely to be at least a thousand other companies doing what you do, making the same product that you make, but one company’s reason *why* can be the thing that sets it apart.
Perhaps we’d benefit from drafting a personal declaration for the ‘why’ of our own existence – or more realistically, at least, for this coming year. Find a vision that makes you get out of bed every morning with a fire in your belly. Follow someone else's great lead, do what excites you, and an original vision may come from there.
Simon Sinek's most recent book is Start with Why How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.