Simon Sinek

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek. New York: Portfolio, 2009. 256 pp. $26.95 (hardcover).

How did Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, build the most profitable airline in America—one able to profit even during the economic turmoil following 9/11? In Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek shows that what separates fabulously successful business leaders such as Kelleher from mediocre leaders is their clarity in defining why they do what they do.

Kelleher, for instance, built Southwest Airlines around the idea of offering inexpensive flights. This was what Southwest offered. But Southwest did not succeed merely by offering inexpensive flights; after all, Pacific Southwest tried the same approach, yet failed. Southwest succeeded because it had a deeper mission. Southwest’s why, Sinek points out, was to champion “the common man” in his travels.

In the 1970s, only 15 percent of the traveling population traveled by air. The seemingly small size of this market that was already serviced by several large companies did not bother Kelleher, because he was not competing with big airlines. He had a different purpose:

Back then if you asked Southwest whom their competition was, they would have told you, “we compete against the car and the bus.” But what they meant was, “We’re the champion of the common man.” That was WHY they started the airline. That was their cause, their purpose, their reason for existing. (p. 32)

Because its “why” was clear, the airline’s every value branched out of this cause.

In the 1970s, air travel was expensive, and if Southwest was going to be the champion for the common man, they had to be cheap. It was an imperative. And in a day and age when air travel was elitist—back then people wore ties on planes—as the champion for the common man, Southwest had to be fun. It was an imperative. In a time when air travel was complicated, with different prices depending on when you booked, Southwest had to be simple. If they were to be accessible to the other 85 percent, then simplicity was an imperative. At the time, Southwest had two price categories: nights/weekends and daytime. That was it. Cheap, fun and simple. That’s HOW they did it. That’s how they were to champion the cause of the common man. The result of their actions was made tangible in the things they said and did—their product, the people they hired, their culture and their marketing. “You are now free to move about the country,” they said in their advertising. That’s much more than a tagline. That’s a cause. (p. 34)

Sinek fills his book with such stories to illustrate why companies need to start with “why” and how they can go about doing so. . . .

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