START WITH START WITH START WITH START WITH WHYWHYWHYWHY
HOW GREAT LEADERS INSPIRE
EVERYONE TO TAKE ACTION
SIMON SINEKSIMON SINEKSIMON SINEKSIMON SINEK
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who finds good ideas
and makes them great
There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders
hold a position of power or influence. Those who lead
Whether individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead
not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those
who lead not for them, but for ourselves.
This is a book for those who want to inspire others and for those
who want to find someone to inspire them.
Introduction: Why Start with Why? 1
PART 1PART 1PART 1PART 1:::: A WORLD THAT DOESN’T START WITH WHY
1. Assume You Know 11 2. Carrots and Sticks 17
PARTPARTPARTPART 2: AN ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVE
3. The Golden Circle 41 4. This Is Not Opinion, This Is Biology 57 5. Clarity, Discipline and Consistency 71
PARTPARTPARTPART 3: LEADERS NEED A FOLLOWING
6. The Emergence of Trust 91 7. How a Tipping Point Tips 127
PART 4:PART 4:PART 4:PART 4: HOW TO RALLY THOSE WHO BELIEVE
8. Start with WHY, but Know HOW 147 9. Know WHY. Know HOW. Then WHAT? 171 10. Communication Is Not About Speaking,
It’s About Listening 179
PART 5:PART 5:PART 5:PART 5: THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IS SUCCESS
11. When WHY Goes Fuzzy 195
12. Split Happens 205
PART 6:PART 6:PART 6:PART 6: DISCOVER WHY
13. The Origins of a WHY 233
14. The New Competition 247
WHY START WITH WHY?
This book is about a naturally occurring pattern, a way of thinking,
acting and communicating that gives some leaders the ability to
inspire those around them. Although these “natural-born leaders”
may have come into the world with a predisposition to inspire, the
ability is not reserved for them exclusively. We can all learn this
pattern. With a little discipline, any leader or organization can in-
spire others, both inside and outside their organization, to help
advance their ideas and their vision. We can all learn to lead.
The goal of this book is not simply to try to fix the things that
aren’t working. Rather, I wrote this book as a guide to focus on and
amplify the things that do work. I do not aim to upset the solutions
offered by others. Most of the answers we get, when based on sound
evidence, are perfectly valid. However, if we’re starting with the
wrong questions, if we don’t understand the cause, then even the
right answers will always steer us wrong … eventually. The truth,
you see, is always revealed… eventually.
The stories that follow are of those individuals and organizations
that naturally embody this pattern. They are the ones that start with
START WITH WHY
The goal was ambitious. Public interest was high. Experts were
eager to contribute. Money was readily available.
Armed with every ingredient for success, Samuel Pierpont
Langley set out in the early 1900s to be the first man to pilot an
airplane. Highly regarded, he was a senior officer at the Smithso-
nian Institution, a mathematics professor who had also worked at
Harvard. His friends included some of the most powerful men in
government and business, including Andrew Carnegie and Alexan-
der Graham Bell. Langley was given a $50,000 grant from the War
Department to fund his project, a tremendous amount of money for
the time. He pulled together the best minds of the day, a veritable
dream team of talent and know-how. Langley and his team used the
finest materials, and the press followed him everywhere. People all
over the country were riveted to the story, waiting to read that he
had achieved his goal. With the team he had gathered and ample
resources, his success was guaranteed.
Or was it?
A few hundred miles away, Wilbur and Orville Wright were
working on their own flying machine. Their passion to fly was so
intense that it inspired the enthusiasm and commitment of a ded-
icated group in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. There was no
funding for their venture. No government grants. No high-level
connections. Not a single person on the team had an advanced
degree or even a college education, not even Wilbur or Orville. But
the team banded together in a humble bicycle shop and made their
vision real. On December 17, 1903, a small group witnessed a man
take flight for the first time in history.
How did the Wright brothers succeed where a better-equipped,
better-funded and better-educated team could not?
WHY STAR WITH WHY
It wasn’t luck. Both the Wright brothers and Langley were highly
motivated. Both had a strong work ethic. Both had keen scientific
minds. They were pursuing exactly the same goal, but only the
Wright brothers were able to inspire those around them and truly
lead their team to develop a technology that would change the
world. Only the Wright brothers started with Why.
In 1965, students on the campus of the University of California,
Berkeley, were the first to publicly burn their draft cards to protest
America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Northern California
was a hotbed of antigovernment and antiestablishment sentiment;
footage of clashes and riots in Berkeley and Oakland was beamed
around the globe, fueling sympathetic movements across the United
States and Europe. But it wasn’t until 1976, nearly three years after
the end of America’s military involvement in the Vietnam conflict,
that a different revolution ignited.
They aimed to make an impact, a very big impact, even chal-
lenge the way people perceived how the world worked. But these
young revolutionaries did not throw stones or take up arms against
an authoritarian regime. Instead, they decided to beat the system at
its own game. For Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the cofounders of
Apple Computer, the battlefield was business and the weapon of
choice was the personal computer.
The personal computer revolution was beginning to brew when
Wozniak built the Apple I. Just starting to gain attention, the tech-
nology was primarily seen as a tool for business. Computers were
too complicated and out of the price range of the average individ-
ual. But Wozniak, a man not motivated by money, envisioned a
nobler purpose for the technology. He saw the personal computer
as a way for the little man to take on a corporation. If he could
START WITH WHY
figure out a way to get it in the hands of the individual, he thought,
the computer would give nearly anyone the ability to perform many
of the same functions as a vastly better resourced company. The
personal computer could level the playing field and change the way
the world operated. Woz designed the Apple I, and improved the
technology with the Apple II, to be affordable and simple to use.
No matter how visionary or how brilliant, a great idea or a great
product isn’t worth much if no one buys it. Wozniak’s best friend at
the time, the twenty-one-year-old Steve Jobs, knew exactly what to
do. Though he had experience selling surplus electronics parts, Jobs
would prove to be much more than a good salesman. He wanted to
do something significant in the world, and building a company was
how he was going to do it. Apple was the tool he used to ignite his
In their first year in business, with only one product, Apple
made a million dollars in revenues. By year two, they did $10 mil-
lion in sales. In their fourth year they sold $100 million worth of
computers. And in just six years, Apple Computer was a billion-
dollar company with over 3,000 employees.
Jobs and Woz were not the only people taking part in the per-
sonal computer revolution. They weren’t the only smart guys in the
business; in fact, they didn’t know much about business at all. What
made Apple special was not their ability to build such a fast-growth
company. It wasn’t their ability to think differently about personal
computers. What has made Apple special is that they’ve been able to
repeat the pattern over and over and over. Unlike any of their
competitors, Apple has successfully challenged conventional think-
ing within the computer industry, the small electronics industry, the
music industry, the mobile phone industry and the broader
entertainment industry. And the reason is simple. Apple inspires.
Apple starts with Why.
WHY STAR WITH WHY
He was not perfect. He had his complexities. He was not the only
one who suffered in a pre-civil rights America, and there were
plenty of other charismatic speakers. But Martin Luther King Jr. had
a gift. He knew how to inspire people.
Dr. King knew that if the civil rights movement was to succeed,
if there was to be a real, lasting change, it would take more than him
and his closest allies. It would take more than rousing words and
eloquent speeches. It would take people, tens of thousands of
average citizens, united by a single vision, to change the country. At
11:00 a.m. on August 28, 1963, they would send a message to Wash-
ington that it was time for America to steer a new course.
The organizers of the civil rights movement did not send out
thousands of invitations, nor was there a Web site to check the date.
But the people came. And they kept coming and coming. All told, a
quarter of a million people descended on the nation’s capital in time
to hear the words immortalized by history, delivered by the man
who would lead a movement that would change America forever: “I
have a dream.”
The ability to attract so many people from across the country, of
all colors and races, to join together on the right day, at the right
time, took something special. Though others knew what had to
change in America to bring about civil rights for all, it was Martin
Luther King who was able to inspire a country to change not just for
the good of a minority, but for the good of everyone. Martin
Luther King started with Why.
. . .
There are leaders and there are those who lead. With only 6 percent
market share in the United States and about 3 percent worldwide,
Apple is not a leading manufacturer of home computers. Yet the
company leads the computer industry and is now a leader in other
START WITH WHY
industries as well. Martin Luther King’s experiences were not
unique, yet he inspired a nation to change. The Wright brothers
were not the strongest contenders in the race to take the first
manned, powered flight, but they led us into a new era of aviation
and, in doing so, completely changed the world we live in.
Their goals were not different than anyone else’s, and their sys-
tems and processes were easily replicated. Yet the Wright brothers,
Apple and Martin Luther King stand out among their peers. They
stand apart from the norm and their impact is not easily copied.
They are members of a very select group of leaders who do some-
thing very, very special. They inspire us.
Just about every person or organization needs to motivate others
to act for some reason or another. Some want to motivate a purchase
decision. Others are looking for support or a vote. Still others are
keen to motivate the people around them to work harder or smarter
or just follow the rules. The ability to motivate people is not, in
itself, difficult. It is usually tied to some external factor. Tempting
incentives or the threat of punishment will often elicit the behavior
we desire. General Motors, for example, so successfully motivated
people to buy their products that they sold more cars than any other
automaker in the world for over seventy- seven years. Though they
were leaders in their industry, they did not lead.
Great leaders, in contrast, are able to inspire people to act. Those
who are able to inspire give people a sense of purpose or belonging
that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be
gained. Those who truly lead are able to create a following of people
who act not because they were swayed, but because they were
inspired. For those who are inspired, the motivation to act is deeply
personal. They are less likely to be swayed by incentives. Those who
are inspired are willing to pay a premium or endure inconvenience,
even personal suffering. Those who are able to inspire will create a
following of people—supporters, voters, customers, workers—who
WHY STAR WITH WHY
act for the good of the whole not because they have to, but because
they want to.
Though relatively few in number, the organizations and leaders
with the natural ability to inspire us come in all shapes and sizes.
They can be found in both the public and private sectors. They are
in all sorts of industries—selling to consumers or to other busi-
nesses. Regardless of where they exist, they all have a dispropor-
tionate amount of influence in their industries. They have the most
loyal customers and the most loyal employees. They tend to be more
profitable than others in their industry. They are more innovative,
and most importantly, they are able to sustain all these things over
the long term. Many of them change industries. Some of them even
change the world.
The Wright brothers, Apple and Dr. King are just three exam-
pies. Harley-Davidson, Disney and Southwest Airlines are three
more. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were also able to inspire.
No matter from where they hail, they all have something in
common. All the inspiring leaders and companies, regardless of size
or industry, think, act and communicate exactly alike.
And it’s the complete opposite of everyone else.
What if we could all learn to think, act and communicate like
those who inspire? I imagine a world in which the ability to inspire
is practiced not just by a chosen few, but by the majority. Studies
show that over 80 percent of Americans do not have their dream job.
If more knew how to build organizations that inspire, we could live
in a world in which that statistic was the reverse—a world in which
over 80 percent of people loved their jobs. People who love going to
work are more productive and more creative. They go home
happier and have happier families. They treat their colleagues and
clients and customers better. Inspired employees make for stronger
companies and stronger economies. That is why I wrote this book. I
hope to inspire others to do the things that inspire them so that
START WITH WHY
together we may build the companies, the economy and a world in
which trust and loyalty are the norm and not the exception. This
book is not designed to tell you what to do or how to do it. Its goal
is not to give you a course of action. Its goal is to offer you the cause
For those who have an open mind for new ideas, who seek to
create long-lasting success and who believe that your success re-
quires the aid of others, I offer you a challenge. From now on, start
ASSUME YOU KNOW
A WORLD THAT
START WITH WHY
ASSUME YOU KNOW
On a cold January day, a forty-three-year-old man was
sworn in as the chief executive of his country. By his side
stood his predecessor, a famous general who, fifteen years
earlier, had commanded his nation’s armed forces in a war
that resulted in the defeat of Germany. The young leader
was raised in the Roman Catholic faith. He spent the next
five hours watching parades in his honor and stayed up
celebrating until three o’clock in the morning.
You know who I’m describing, right?
It’s January 30, 1933, and I’m describing Adolf Hitler and not, as
most people would assume, John F. Kennedy.
The point is, we make assumptions. We make assumptions about
the world around us based on sometimes incomplete or false
information. In this case, the information I offered was incomplete.
Many of you were convinced that I was describing John F. Kennedy
until I added one minor little detail: the date.
This is important because our behavior is affected by our as-
sumptions or our perceived truths. We make decisions based on
what we think we know. It wasn’t too long ago that the majority of
START WITH WHY
people believed the world was flat. This perceived truth impacted
behavior. During this period, there was very little exploration. Peo-
ple feared that if they traveled too far they might fall off the edge of
the earth. So for the most part they stayed put. It wasn’t until that
minor detail was revealed—the world is round—that behaviors
changed on a massive scale. Upon this discovery, societies began to
traverse the planet. Trade routes were established; spices were
traded. New ideas, like mathematics, were shared between societies
which unleashed all kinds of innovations and advancements. The
correction of a simple false assumption moved the human race
Now consider how organizations are formed and how decisions
are made. Do we really know why some organizations succeed and
why others don’t, or do we just assume? No matter your definition
of success—hitting a target stock price, making a certain amount of
money, meeting a revenue or profit goal, getting a big promotion,
starting your own company, feeding the poor, winning public
office—how we go about achieving our goals is very similar. Some
of us just wing it, but most of us try to at least gather some data so
we can make educated decisions. Sometimes this gathering process
is formal—like conducting polls or market research. And sometimes
it’s informal, like asking our friends and colleagues for advice or
looking back on our own personal experience to provide some
perspective. Regardless of the process or the goals, we all want to
make educated decisions. More importantly, we all want to make
the right decisions.
As we all know, however, not all decisions work out to be the
right ones, regardless of the amount of data we collect. Sometimes
the impact of those wrong decisions is minor, and sometimes it can
be catastrophic. Whatever the result, we make decisions based on a
perception of the world that may not, in fact, be completely accu-
rate. Just as so many were certain that I was describing John F.
ASSUME YOU KNOW
Kennedy at the beginning of this section. You were certain you were
right. You might even have bet money on it—a behavior based on
an assumption. Certain, that is, until I offered that little detail of the
Not only bad decisions are made on false assumptions. Some-
times when things go right, we think we know why, but do we re-
ally? That the result went the way you wanted does not mean you
can repeat it over and over. I have a friend who invests some of his
own money. Whenever he does well, it’s because of his brains and
ability to pick the right stocks, at least according to him. But when
he loses money, he always blames the market. I have no issue with
either line of logic, but either his success and failure hinge upon his
own prescience and blindness or they hinge upon good and bad
luck. But it can’t be both.
So how can we ensure that all our decisions will yield the best
results for reasons that are fully within our control? Logic dictates
that more information and data are key. And that’s exactly what we
do. We read books, attend conferences, listen to podcasts and ask
friends and colleagues—all with the purpose of finding out more so
we can figure out what to do or how to act. The problem is, we’ve all
been in situations in which we have all the data and get lots of good
advice but things still don’t go quite right. Or maybe the impact
lasted for only a short time, or something happened that we could
not foresee. A quick note to all of you who correctly guessed Adolf
Hitler at the beginning of the section: the details I gave are the same
for both Hitler and John F. Kennedy, it could have been either. You
have to be careful what you think you know. Asumptions, you see,
even when based on sound research, can lead us astray.
Intuitively we understand this. We understand that even with
mountains of data and good advice, if things don’t go as expected,
it’s probably because we missed one, sometimes small but vital de-
tail. In these cases, we go back to all our sources, maybe seek out
START WITH WHY
some new ones, and try to figure out what to do, and the whole
process begins again. More data, however, doesn’t always help, es-
pecially if a flawed assumption set the whole process in motion in
the first place. There are other factors that must be considered, fac-
tors that exist outside of our rational, analytical, information-
There are times in which we had no data or we chose to ignore
the advice or information at hand and just went with our gut and
things worked out just fine, sometimes even better than expected.
This dance between gut and rational decision-making pretty much
covers how we conduct business and even live our lives. We can
continue to slice and dice all the options in every direction, but at
the end of all the good advice and all the compelling evidence,
we’re left where we started: how to explain or decide a course of
action that yields a desired effect that is repeatable. How can we
have 20/20 foresight?
There is a wonderful story of a group of American car executives
who went to Japan to see a Japanese assembly line. At the end of the
line, the doors were put on the hinges, the same as in America. But
something was missing. In the United States, a line worker would
take a rubber mallet and tap the edges of the door to ensure that it
fit perfectly. In Japan, that job didn’t seem to exist. Confused, the
American auto executives asked at what point they made sure the
door fit perfectly. Their Japanese guide looked at them and smiled
sheepishly. “We make sure it fits when we design it.” In the
Japanese auto plant, they didn’t examine the problem and
accumulate data to figure out the best solution—they engineered
the outcome they wanted from the beginning. If they didn’t achieve
their desired outcome, they understood it was because of a decision
they made at the start of the process.
At the end of the day, the doors on the American-made and
Japanese-made cars appeared to fit when each rolled off the as-
ASSUME YOU KNOW
sembly line. Except the Japanese didn’t need to employ someone to
hammer doors, nor did they need to buy any mallets. More impor-
tantly, the Japanese doors are likely to last longer and maybe even
be more structurally sound in an accident. All this for no other
reason than they ensured the pieces fit from the start.
What the American automakers did with their rubber mallets is
a metaphor for how so many people and organizations lead. When
faced with a result that doesn’t go according to plan, a series of
perfectly effective short-term tactics are used until the desired out-
come is achieved. But how structurally sound are those solutions?
So many organizations function in a world of tangible goals and the
mallets to achieve them. The ones that achieve more, the ones that
get more out of fewer people and fewer resources, the ones with an
outsized amount of influence, however, build products and com-
panies and even recruit people that all fit based on the original
intention. Even though the outcome may look the same, great lead-
ers understand the value in the things we cannot see.
Every instruction we give, every course of action we set, every
result we desire, starts with the same thing: a decision. There are
those who decide to manipulate the door to fit to achieve the desired
result and there are those who start from somewhere very different.
Though both courses of action may yield similar short- term results,
it is what we can’t see that makes long-term success more
predictable for only one. The one that understood why the doors
need to fit by design and not by default.
CARROTS AND STICKS
Manipulation vs. Inspiration
There’s barely a product or service on the market today that cus-
tomers can’t buy from someone else for about the same price, about
the same quality, about the same level of service and about the same
features. If you truly have a first-mover’s advantage, it’s probably
lost in a matter of months. If you offer something truly novel,
someone else will soon come up with something similar and maybe
But if you ask most businesses why their customers are their
customers, most will tell you it’s because of superior quality, fea-
tures, price or service. In other words, most companies have no clue
why their customers are their customers. This is a fascinating
realization. If companies don’t know why their customers are their
customers, odds are good that they don’t know why their employees
are their employees either.
If most companies don’t really know why their customers are
their customers or why their employees are their employees, then
START WITH WHY
how do they know how to attract more employees and encourage
loyalty among those they already have? The reality is, most busi-
nesses today are making decisions based on a set of incomplete or,
worse, completely flawed assumptions about what’s driving their
There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can
manipulate it or you can inspire it. When I mention manipulation,
this is not necessarily pejorative; it’s a very common and fairly be-
nign tactic. In fact, many of us have been doing it since we were
young. “I’ll be your best friend” is the highly effective negotiating
tactic employed by generations of children to obtain something they
want from a peer. And as any child who has ever handed over
candy hoping for a new best friend will tell you, it works.
From business to politics, manipulations run rampant in all
forms of sales and marketing. Typical manipulations include: drop-
ping the price; running a promotion; using fear, peer pressure or
aspirational messages; and promising innovation to influence
behavior—be it a purchase, a vote or support. When companies or
organizations do not have a clear sense of why their customers are
their customers, they tend to rely on a disproportionate number of
manipulations to get what they need. And for good reason. Ma-
Many companies are reluctant to play the price game, but they do
so because they know it is effective. So effective, in fact, that the
temptation can sometimes be overwhelming. There are few profes-
sional services firms that, when faced with an opportunity to land a
big piece of business, haven’t just dropped their price to make the
deal happen. No matter how they rationalized it to themselves or
their clients, price is a highly effective manipulation. Drop your
prices low enough and people will buy from you. We see it at the
CARROTS AND STICKS
end of a retail season when products are “priced to move.” Drop the
price low enough and the shelves will very quickly clear to make
room for the next season’s products.
Playing the price game, however, can come at tremendous cost
and can create a significant dilemma for the company. For the seller,
selling based on price is like heroin. The short-term gain is fantastic,
but the more you do it, the harder it becomes to kick the habit. Once
buyers get used to paying a lower-than-average price for a product
or service, it is very hard to get them to pay more. And the sellers,
facing overwhelming pressure to push prices lower and lower in
order to compete, find their margins cut slimmer and slimmer. This
only drives a need to sell more to compensate. And the quickest
way to do that is price again. And so the downward spiral of price
addiction sets in. In the drug world, these addicts are called junkies.
In the business world, we call them commodities. Insurance. Home
computers. Mobile phone service. Any number of packaged goods.
The list of commodities created by the price game goes on and on.
In nearly every circumstance, the companies that are forced to treat
their products as commodities brought it upon themselves. I cannot
debate that dropping the price is not a perfectly legitimate way of
driving business; the challenge is staying profitable.
Wal-Mart seems to be an exception to the rule. They have built a
phenomenally successful business playing the price game. But it
also came at a high cost. Scale helped Wal-Mart avoid the inherent
weaknesses of a price strategy, but the company’s obsession with
price above all else has left it scandal-ridden and hurt its reputation.
And every one of the company’s scandals was born from its
attempts to keep costs down so it could afford to offer such low
Price always costs something. The question is, how much are
you willing to pay for the money you make?
START WITH WHY
General Motors had a bold goal. To lead the American automotive
industry in market share. In the 1950s there were four choices of car
manufacturer in the United States: GM, Ford, Chrysler and AMC.
Before foreign automakers entered the field, GM dominated. New
competition, as one would expect, made that goal harder to
maintain. I don’t need to provide any data to explain how much has
changed in the auto industry in fifty years. But General Motors held
fast through most of the last century and maintained its prized
Since 1990, however, Toyota’s share of the U.S. market has more
than doubled. By 2007, Toyota’s share had climbed to 16.3 percent,
from only 7.8 percent. During the same period, GM saw its U.S.
market share drop dramatically from 35 percent in 1990 to 23.8
percent in 2007. And in early 2008, the unthinkable happened: U.S.
consumers bought more foreign-made automobiles than ones made
Since the 1990s, faced with this onslaught of competition from
Japan, GM and the other U.S. automakers have scrambled to offer
incentives aimed at helping them hold on to their dwindling share.
Heavily promoted with advertising, GM, for one, has offered cash-
back incentives of between $500 and $7,000 to customers who
bought their cars and trucks. For a long time the promotions
worked brilliantly. GM’s sales were on the rise again.
But in the long term the incentives only helped to dramatically
erode GM’s profit margins and put them in a deep hole. In 2007,
GM lost $729 per vehicle, in large part due to incentives. Realizing
that the model was unsustainable, GM announced it would reduce
the amount of the cash-back incentives it offered, and with that
reduction, sales plummeted. No cash, no customers. The auto in-
dustry had effectively created cash-back junkies out of customers,
building an expectation that there’s no such thing as full price.
CARROTS AND STICKS
Whether it is “two for one” or “free toy inside,” promotions are
such common manipulations that we often forget that we’re being
manipulated in the first place. Next time you’re in the market for a
digital camera, for example, pay attention to how you make your
decision. You’ll easily find two or three cameras with the spec-
ifications you need—size, number of megapixels, comparable price,
good brand name. But perhaps one has a promotion—a free
carrying case or free memory card. Given the relative parity of the
features and benefits, that little something extra is sometimes all it
takes to tip the scale. In the business-to-business world, pro-
motions are called “value added.” But the principles are the same—
give something away for free to reduce the risk so that someone will
do business with you. And like price, promotions work.
The manipulative nature of promotions is so well established in
retail that the industry even named one of the principles. They call it
breakage. Breakage measures the percentage of customers who fail
to take advantage of a promotion and end up paying full price for a
product instead. This typically happens when buyers don’t bother
performing the necessary steps to claim their rebates, a process pur-
posely kept complicated or inconvenient to increase the likelihood
of mistakes or inaction to keep that breakage number up.
Rebates typically require the customer to send in a copy of a
receipt, cut out a bar code from the packaging and painstakingly fill
out a rebate form with details about the product and how it was
purchased. Sending in the wrong part of the box or leaving out a
detail on the application can delay the rebate for weeks, months, or
void it altogether. The rebate industry also has a name for the num-
ber of customers who just don’t bother to apply for the rebate, or
who never cash the rebate check they receive. That’s called slippage.
For businesses, the short-term benefits of rebates and other ma-
nipulations are clear: a rebate lures customers to pay full price for a
product that they may have considered buying only because of the
START WITH WHY
prospect of a partial refund. But nearly 40 percent of those custom-
ers never get the lower price they thought they were paying. Call it
a tax on the disorganized, but retailers rely on it.
Regulators have stepped up their scrutiny of the rebate industry,
but with only limited success. The rebate process remains cumber-
some and that means free money for the seller. Manipulation at its
best. But at what cost?
If someone were to hold up a bank with a banana in his pocket, he
would be charged with armed robbery. Clearly, no victim was in
any danger of being shot, but it is the belief that the robber has a
real gun that is considered by the law. And for good reason.
Knowing full well that fear will motivate them to comply with his
demands, the robber took steps to make his victims afraid. Fear, real
or perceived, is arguably the most powerful manipulation of the lot.
“No one ever got fired for hiring IBM,” goes the old adage, de-
scribing a behavior completely borne out of fear. An employee in a
procurement department, tasked with finding the best suppliers for
a company, turns down a better product at a better price simply
because it is from a smaller company or lesser-known brand. Fear,
real or perceived, that his job would be on the line if something
went wrong was enough to make him ignore the express purpose of
his job, even do something that was not in the company’s best
When fear is employed, facts are incidental. Deeply seated in our
biological drive to survive, that emotion cannot be quickly wiped
away with facts and figures. This is how terrorism works. It’s not
the statistical probability that one could get hurt by a terrorist, but
it’s the fear that it might happen that cripples a population.
A powerful manipulator, fear is often used with far less nefari-
ous motivations. We use fear to raise our kids. We use fear to mo-
CARROTS AND STICKS
tivate people to obey a code of ethics. Fear is regularly used in
public service ads, say to promote child safety or AIDS awareness,
or the need to wear seat belts. Anyone who was watching television
in the 1980s got a heavy dose of antidrug advertising, including one
often-mimicked public service ad from a federal program to combat
drug abuse among teenagers: “This is your brain,” the man’s voice
said as he held up a pristine white egg. Then he cracked the egg into
a frying pan of spattering hot oil. “This is your brain on drug. Any
And another ad intended to scare the hell out of any brash teen-
ager: “Cocaine doesn’t make you sexy… it makes you dead.”
Likewise, when politicians say that their opponent will raise
taxes or cut spending on law enforcement, or the evening news
alerts you that your health or security are at risk unless you tune in
at eleven, both are attempting to seed fear among voters and view-
ers, respectively. Businesses also use fear to agitate the insecurity
we all have in order to sell products. The idea is that if you don’t
buy the product or service, something bad could happen to you.
“Every thirty-six seconds, someone dies of a heart attack,” states
an ad for a local cardiac specialist. “Do you have radon? Your neigh-
bor does!” reads the ad on the side of a truck for some company
selling a home-pollution-inspection service. And, of course, the
insurance industry would like to sell you term life insurance “before
it’s too late.”
If anyone has ever sold you anything with a warning to fear the
consequences if you don’t buy it, they are using a proverbial gun to
your head to help you see the “value” of choosing them over their
competitor. Or perhaps it’s just a banana. But it works.
“Quitting smoking is the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” said Mark
Twain. “I’ve done it hundreds of times.”
START WITH WHY
If fear motivates us to move away from something horrible,
aspirational messages tempt us toward something desirable.
Marketers often talk about the importance of being aspirational,
offering someone something they desire to achieve and the ability to
get there more easily with a particular product or service. “Six steps
to a happier life.” “Work those abs to your dream dress size!” “In six
short weeks you can be rich.” All these messages manipulate. They
tempt us with the things we want to have or to be the person we
wish we were.
Though positive in nature, aspirational messages are most ef-
fective with those who lack discipline or have a nagging fear or
insecurity that they don’t have the ability to achieve their dreams on
their own (which, at various times for various reasons, is everyone).
I always joke that you can get someone to buy a gym membership
with an aspirational message, but to get them to go three days a
week requires a bit of inspiration. Someone who lives a healthy
lifestyle and is in a habit of exercising does not respond to “six easy
steps to losing weight.” It’s those who don’t have the lifestyle that
are most susceptible. It’s not news that a lot of people try diet after
diet after diet in an attempt to get the body of their dreams. And no
matter the regime they choose, each comes with the qualification
that regular exercise and a balanced diet will help boost results. In
other words, discipline. Gym memberships tend to rise about 12
percent every January, as people try to fulfill their New Year’s
aspiration to live a healthier life. Yet only a fraction of those
aspiring fitness buffs are still attending the gym by the end of the
year. Aspirational messages can spur behavior, but for most, it
Aspirational messages are not only effective in the consumer
market, they also work quite well in business-to-business transac-
tions. Managers of companies, big and small, all want to do well, so
they make decisions, hire consultants and implement systems to
CARROTS AND STICKS
help them achieve that desired outcome. But all too often, it is not
the systems that fail but the ability to maintain them. I can speak
from personal experience here. I’ve implemented a lot of systems or
practices over the years to help me “achieve the success to which I
aspire,” only to find myself back to my old habits two weeks later. I
aspire for a system that will help me avoid implementing systems to
meet all my aspirations. But I probably wouldn’t be able to follow it
for very long.
This short-term response to long-term desires is alive and well in
the corporate world also. A management consultant friend of mine
was hired by a billion-dollar company to help it fulfill its goals and
aspirations. The problem was, she explained, no matter the issue,
the company’s managers were always drawn to the quicker, cheaper
option over the better long-term solution. Just like the habitual
dieter, “they never have the time or money to do it right the first
time,” she said of her client, “but they always have the time and
money to do it again.”
“Four out of five dentists prefer Trident,” touts the chewing gum
advertisement in an attempt to get you to try their product. “A
double-blind study conducted at a top university concluded . . .”
pushes a late-night infomercial. “If the product is good enough for
professionals, it’s good enough for you,” the advertising eggs on.
“With over a million satisfied customers and counting,” teases an-
other ad. These are all forms of peer pressure. When marketers
report that a majority of a population or a group of experts prefers
their product over another, they are attempting to sway the buyer to
believing that whatever they are selling is better. The peer pressure
works because we believe that the majority or the experts might
know more than we do. Peer pressure works not because the
majority or the experts are always right, but because we fear that we
may be wrong.
START WITH WHY
Celebrity endorsements are sometimes used to add peer pressure
to the sales pitch. “If he uses it,” we’re supposed to think, “it must be
good.” This makes sense when we hear Tiger Woods endorse Nike
golf products or Titleist golf balls. (Woods’s deal with Nike is
actually credited for putting the company on the map in the golf
world.) But Tiger has also endorsed General Motors cars, man-
agement consulting services, credit cards, food and a Tag Heuer
watch designed “especially for the golfer.” The watch, incidentally,
can withstand a 5,000-g shock, a level of shock more likely experi-
enced by the golf ball than the golfer. But Tiger endorsed it, so it
must be good. Celebrity endorsements are also used to appeal to our
aspirations and our desires to be like them. The most explicit
example was Gatorade’s “I wanna be like Mike” campaign, which
tempted youngsters to grow up and be just like Michael Jordan if
they drink Gatorade. With many other examples of celebrity en-
dorsements, however, it is harder to see the connection. Sam Water-
ston of Law & Order fame, for example, sells online trading from TD
Ameritrade. But for his celebrity, it’s uncertain what an actor famed
for convicting homicidal maniacs does for the brand. I guess he’s
Impressionable youth are not the only ones subject to peer
pressure. Most of us have probably had an experience of being
pressured by a salesman. Have you ever had a sales rep try to sell
you some “office solution” by telling you that 70 percent of your
competitors are using their service, so why aren’t you? But what if
70 percent of your competitors are idiots? Or what if that 70 percent
were given so much value added or offered such a low price that
they couldn’t resist the opportunity? The practice is designed to do
one thing and one thing only—to pressure you to buy. To make you
feel you might be missing out on something or that everyone else
knows but you. Better to go with the majority, right?
CARROTS AND STICKS
To quote my mother, “If your friends put their head in the oven,
would you do that too?” Sadly, if Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods
was paid to do just that, it might actually start a trend.
Novelty (a.k.a. Innovation)
“In a major innovation in design and engineering, [Motorola] has
created a phone of firsts,” read a 2004 press release that announced
the launch of the mobile phone manufacturer’s newest entry to the
ultracompetitive mobile phone market. “The combination of metals,
such as aircraft-grade aluminum, with new advances, such as an
internal antenna and a chemically-etched keypad, led to the for-
mation of a device that measures just 13.9mm thin.”
And it worked. Millions of people rushed to get one. Celebrities
flashed their RAZRs on the red carpet. Even a prime minister or two
was seen talking on one. Having sold over 50 million units, few
could argue that the RAZR wasn’t a huge success. “By surpassing
current mobile expectations, the RAZR represents Motorola’s his-
tory of delivering revolutionary innovations,” said former Motorola
CEO Ed Zander of his new wunder-product, “while setting a new
bar for future products coming out of the wireless industry.”
This one product was a huge financial success for Motorola. This
was truly an innovation of monumental proportions.
Or was it?
Less than four years later, Zander was forced out. The stock
traded at 50 percent of its average value since the launch of the
RAZR, and Motorola’s competitors had easily surpassed the RAZR’s
features and functionalities with equally innovative new phones.
Motorola was once again rendered just another mobile phone
manufacturer fighting for its piece of the pie. Like so many before it,
the company confused innovation with novelty.
START WITH WHY
Real innovation changes the course of industries or even society.
The light bulb, the microwave oven, the fax machine, iTunes. These
are true innovations that changed how we conduct business, altered
how we live our lives, and, in the case of iTunes, challenged an
industry to completely reevaluate its business model. Adding a
camera to a mobile phone, for example, is not an innovation— a
great feature, for sure, but not industry-altering. With this revised
definition in mind, even Motorola’s own description of its new
product becomes just a list of a few great features: a metal case,
hidden antenna, flat keypad and a thin phone. Hardly “revolution-
ary innovation.” Motorola had successfully designed the latest shiny
object for people to get excited about … at least until a new shiny
object came out. And that’s the reason these features are more a
novelty than an innovation. They are added in an attempt to dif-
ferentiate, but not reinvent. It’s not a bad thing, but it can’t be
counted on to add any long-term value. Novelty can drive sales—
the RAZR proved it—but the impact does not last. If a company
adds too many novel ideas too often, it can have a similar impact on
the product or category as the price game. In an attempt to dif-
ferentiate with more features, the products start to look and feel
more like commodities. And, like price, the need to add yet another
product to the line to compensate for the commoditization ends in a
In the 1970s, there were only two types of Colgate toothpaste.
But as competition increased, Colgate’s sales started to slip. So the
company introduced a new product that included a new feature, the
addition of fluoride, perhaps. Then another. Then another. Whit-
ening. Tartar control. Sparkles. Stripes. Each innovation certainly
helped boost sales, for a while at least. And so the cycle continued.
Guess how many different types of toothpaste Colgate has for you
to choose from today? Thirty-two. Today there are thirty-two dif-
ferent types of Colgate toothpaste (excluding the four they make for
CARROTS AND STICKS
kids). And given how each company responds to the “innovations”
of the other, that means that Colgate’s competitors also sell a similar
number of variants that offer about the same quality, about the same
benefits, at about the same price. There are literally dozens and
dozens of toothpastes to choose from, yet there is no data to show
that Americans are brushing their teeth more now than they were in
the 1970s. Thanks to all this “innovation,” it has become almost
impossible to know which toothpaste is right for you. So much so
that even Colgate offers a link on their Web site called “Need Help
Deciding?” If Colgate needs to help us pick one of their products
because there are too many variations, how are we supposed to
decide when we go to the supermarket without their Web site to
Once again, this is an example of the newest set of shiny objects
designed to encourage a trial or a purchase. What companies clev-
erly disguise as “innovation” is in fact novelty. And it’s not only
packaged goods that rely on novelty to lure customers; it’s a com-
mon practice in other industries, too. It works, but rarely if ever
does the strategy cement any loyal relationships.
Apple’s iPhone has since replaced the Motorola RAZR as the
popular must-have new mobile phone. Removing all the buttons
and putting a touch screen is not what makes the iPhone innovative,
however. Those are brilliant new features. But others can copy those
things and it wouldn’t redefine the category. There is something
else that Apple did that is vastly more significant.
Apple is not only leading how mobile phones are designed, but,
in typical Apple fashion, also how the industry functions. In the
mobile phone industry, it is the service provider, not the phone
manufacturer, that determines all the features and benefits the
phone can offer. T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, AT&T all dic-
tate to Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson, LG and others what the phones
will do. Then Apple showed up. They announced that they would
START WITH WHY
tell the service provider what the phone would do, not the other
way around. AT&T was the only one that agreed, thus earning the
company the exclusive deal to offer the new technology. That’s the
kind of shift that will impact the industry for many years and will
extend far beyond a few years of stock boost for the shiny new
The Price You Pay for the Money You Make
I cannot dispute that manipulations work. Every one of them can
indeed help influence behavior and every one of them can help a
company become quite successful. But there are trade-offs. Not a
single one of them breeds loyalty. Over the course of time, they cost
more and more. The gains are only short-term. And they increase
the level of stress for both the buyer and the seller. If you have ex-
ceptionally deep pockets or are looking to achieve only a short-
term gain with no consideration for the long term, then these
strategies and tactics are perfect.
Beyond the business world, manipulations are the norm in pol-
itics today as well. Just as manipulations can drive a sale but not
create loyalty, so too can they help a candidate get elected, but they
don’t create a foundation for leadership. Leadership requires people
to stick with you through thick and thin. Leadership is the ability to
rally people not for a single event, but for years. In business,
leadership means that customers will continue to support your
company even when you slip up. If manipulation is the only strat-
egy, what happens the next time a purchase decision is required?
What happens after the election is won?
There is a big difference between repeat business and loyalty.
Repeat business is when people do business with you multiple
times. Loyalty is when people are willing to turn down a better
product or a better price to continue doing business with you. Loyal
CARROTS AND STICKS
customers often don’t even bother to research the competition or
entertain other options. Loyalty is not easily won. Repeat business,
however, is. All it takes is more manipulations.
Manipulative techniques have become such a mainstay in
American business today that it has become virtually impossible for
some to kick the habit. Like any addiction, the drive is not to get
sober, but to find the next fix faster and more frequently. And as
good as the short-term highs may feel, they have a deleterious im-
pact on the long-term health of an organization. Addicted to the
short-term results, business today has largely become a series of
quick fixes added on one after another after another. The short-
term tactics have become so sophisticated that an entire economy
has developed to service the manipulations, equipped with statistics
and quasi-science. Direct marketing companies, for example, offer
calculations about which words will get the best results on each
piece of direct mail they send out.
Those that offer mail-in rebates know the incentive works and
they know that the higher the rebate, the more effective it is. They
also know the cost that goes along with those rebates. To make
them profitable, manufacturers rely on the breakage and slippage
numbers staying above a certain threshold. Just like our trusty drug
addict, whose behavior is reinforced by how good the short-term
high feels, the temptation to make the qualifications of the rebate
more obscure or cumbersome so as to reduce the number of qual-
ified applicants can be overwhelming for some.
Samsung, the electronics giant, mastered the art of the kind of
fine print that makes rebates so profitable for companies. In the
early 2000s, the company offered rebates up to $150 on a variety of
electronic products, stipulating in the fine print that the rebate was
limited to one per address—a requirement that would have
sounded reasonable enough to anyone at the time. Yet in practice, it
effectively disqualified all customers who lived in apartment
START WITH WHY
buildings where more than one resident had applied for the same
rebate. More than 4,000 Samsung customers lured by the cash back
received notices denying them rebates on those grounds. The prac-
tice was brought to the attention of the New York attorney general,
and in 2004 Samsung was ordered to pay $200,000 in rebate claims
to apartment dwellers. This is an extreme case of a company that
got caught. But the rebate game of cutting out UPC symbols, filling
out forms and doing it all before the deadline is alive and well. How
can a company claim to be customer-focused when they are so
comfortable measuring the number of customers who will fail to
realize any promise of savings?
Manipulations Lead to Transactions, Not Loyalty
“It’s simple,” explains the TV infomercial, “simply put your old gold
jewelry in the prepaid, insured envelope and we’ll send you a check
for the value of the gold in just two days.” Mygoldenvelope .com is
one of the leaders in this industry, serving as a broker for gold to be
sent to a refinery, melted down, and reintroduced into the
When Douglas Feirstein and Michael Moran started the com-
pany, they wanted to be the best in the business. They wanted to
transform an industry with the reputation of a back-alley pawn
shop and give it a bit of a Tiffany’s sheen. They invested money in
making the experience perfect. They worked to make the customer
service experience ideal. They were both successful entrepreneurs
and knew the value of building a brand and a strong customer
experience. They’d spent a lot of money trying to get the balance
right, and they made sure to explain their difference in direct re-
sponse advertising on various local and national cable stations.
“Better than the similar offers,” they’d say. And they were right. But
the investment didn’t pay off as expected.
CARROTS AND STICKS
A few months later, Feirstein and Moran made a significant dis-
covery: almost all of their customers did business with them only
once. They had a transactional business yet they were trying to
make it so much more than that. So they stopped trying to make
their service “better than similar offers,” and instead settled with
good. Given that most people were not going to become repeat
customers, there weren’t going to be any head-to-head comparisons
made to the other services. All they needed to do was drive a
purchase decision and offer a pleasant enough experience that
people would recommend it to a friend. Any more was unneces-
sary. Once the owners of mygoldenvelope.com realized they didn’t
need to invest in the things that build loyalty if all they wanted to
do was drive transactions, their business became vastly more effi-
cient and more profitable.
For transactions that occur an average of once, carrots and sticks
are the best way to elicit the desired behavior. When the police offer
a reward they are not looking to nurture a relationship with the
witness or tipster; it is just a single transaction. When you lose your
kitten and offer a reward to get it back, you don’t need to have a
lasting relationship with the person returning it; you just want your
Manipulations are a perfectly valid strategy for driving a trans-
action, or for any behavior that is only required once or on rare
occasions. The rewards the police use are designed to incentivize
witnesses to come forward to provide tips or evidence that may
lead to an arrest. And, like any promotion, the manipulation will
work if the incentive feels high enough to mitigate the risk.
In any circumstance in which a person or organization wants
more than a single transaction, however, if there is a hope for a
loyal, lasting relationship, manipulations do not help. Does a poli-
tician want your vote, for example, or does he or she want a lifetime
of support and loyalty from you? (Judging by how elections are run
START WITH WHY
these days, it seems all they want is to win elections. Ads discredit-
ing opponents, a focus on single issues, and an uncomfortable reli-
ance on fear or aspirational desires are all indicators. Those tactics
win elections, but they do not seed loyalties among the voters.)
The American car industry learned the hard way the high cost of
relying on manipulations to build a business when loyalty was what
they really needed to nurture. While manipulations may be a viable
strategy when times are good and money is flush, a change in
market conditions made them too expensive. When the oil crisis of
2008 hit, the auto industry’s promotions and incentives became
untenable (the same thing happened in the 1970s). In this case, how
long the manipulations could produce short-term gains was defined
by the length of time the economy could sustain the strategy. This is
a fundamentally weak platform upon which to build a business, an
assumption of never-ending boom. Though loyal customers are less
tempted by other offers and incentives, in good times the free flow
of business makes it hard to recognize their value. It’s in the tough
times that loyal customers matter most.
Manipulations work, but they cost money. Lots of money. When
the money is not as available to fund those tactics, not having a loyal
following really hurts. After September 11, there were customers
who sent checks to Southwest Airlines to show their support. One
note that accompanied a check for $1,000 read, “You’ve been so good
to me over the years, in these hard times I wanted to say thank you
by helping you out.” The checks that Southwest Airlines received
were certainly not enough to make any significant impact on the
company’s bottom line, but they were symbolic of the feeling
customers had for the brand. They had a sense of partnership. The
loyal behavior of those who didn’t send money is almost impossible
to measure, but its impact has been invaluable over the long term,
helping Southwest to maintain its position as the most profitable
airline in history.
CARROTS AND STICKS
Knowing you have a loyal customer and employee base not only
reduces costs, it provides massive peace of mind. Like loyal friends,
you know your customers and employees will be there for you
when you need them most. It is the feeling of “we’re in this
together,” shared between customer and company, voter and
candidate, boss and employee, that defines great leaders.
In contrast, relying on manipulations creates massive stress for
buyer and seller alike. For the buyer, it has become increasingly
difficult to know which product, service, brand or company is best. I
joke about the proliferation of toothpaste varieties and the difficulty
of choosing the right one. But toothpaste is just a metaphor. Nearly
every decision we’re asked to make every single day is like choosing
toothpaste. Deciding what law firm to hire, college to attend, car to
buy, company to work for, candidate to elect—there are just too
many choices. All the advertising, promotions and pressure
employed to tempt us one way or another, each attempting to push
harder than the other to court us for our money or our support,
ultimately yields one consistent result: stress.
For the companies too, whose obligation it is to help us decide,
their ability to do so has gotten more and more difficult. Every day,
the competition is doing something new, something better. To con-
stantly have to come up with a new promotion, a new guerrilla
marketing tactic, a new feature to add, is hard work. Combined
with the long-term effects of years of short-term decisions that have
eroded profit margins, this raises stress levels inside organizations
as well. When manipulations are the norm, no one wins.
It’s not an accident that doing business today, and being in the
workforce today, is more stressful than it used to be. Peter Why-
brow, in his book American Mania: When More Is Not Enough, argues
that many of the ills that we suffer from today have very little to do
with the bad food we’re eating or the partially hydrogenated oils in
our diet. Rather, Whybrow says, it’s the way that corporate America
START WITH WHY
has developed that has increased our stress to levels so high we’re
literally making ourselves sick because of it. Americans are
suffering ulcers, depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, and
cancer at record levels. According to Whybrow, all those promises
of more, more, more are actually overloading the reward circuits of
our brain. The short-term gains that drive business in America
today are actually destroying our health.
Just Because It Works Doesn’t Make It Right
The danger of manipulations is that they work. And because ma-
nipulations work, they have become the norm, practiced by the vast
majority of companies and organizations, regardless of size or
industry. That fact alone creates a systemic peer pressure. With per-
fect irony, we, the manipulators, have been manipulated by our
own system. With every price drop, promotion, fear-based or aspi-
rational message, and novelty we use to achieve our goals, we find
our companies, our organizations and our systems getting weaker
The economic crisis that began in 2008 is just another, albeit
extreme, example of what can happen if a flawed assumption is al-
lowed to carry on for too long. The collapse of the housing market
and the subsequent collapse of the banking industry were due to
decisions made inside the banks based on a series of manipulations.
Employees were manipulated with bonuses that encouraged short-
sighted decision-making. Open shaming of anyone who spoke out
discouraged responsible dissent. A free flow of loans encouraged
aspiring homebuyers to buy more than they could afford at all price
levels. There was very little loyalty. It was all a series of
transactional decisions—effective, but at a high cost. Few were
working for the good of the whole. Why would they?—there was no
reason given to do so. There was no cause or belief beyond instant
gratification. Bankers weren’t the first to be swept up by their own
CARROTS AND STICKS
success. American car manufacturers have conducted themselves
the same way for decades—manipulation after manipulation, short-
term decision built upon short-term decision. Buckling or even
collapse is the only logical conclusion when manipulations are the
main course of action.
The reality is, in today’s world, manipulations are the norm.
But there is an alternative.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
There are a few leaders who choose to inspire rather than manipu-
late in order to motivate people. Whether individuals or organiza-
tions, every single one of these inspiring leaders thinks, acts and
communicates exactly the same way. And it’s the complete opposite
of the rest of us. Consciously or not, how they do it is by following a
naturally occurring pattern that I call The Golden Circle.
The concept of The Golden Circle was inspired by the golden
ratio—a simple mathematical relationship that has fascinated
mathematicians, biologists, architects, artists, musicians and
naturists since the beginning of history. From the Egyptians to
Pythagoras to Leonardo da Vinci, many have looked to the golden
ratio to provide a mathematical formula for proportion and even
beauty. It also supports the notion that there is more order in nature
START WITH WHY
than we think, as in the symmetry of leaves and the geometric
perfection of snowflakes.
What I found so attractive about the golden ratio, however, was
that it had so many applications in so many fields. And even more
significantly, it offered a formula that could produce repeat- able
and predictable results in places where such results might have
been assumed to be a random occurrence or luck. Even Mother
Nature—for most people a symbol of unpredictability—exhibited
more order than we previously acknowledged. Like the golden
ratio, which offers evidence of order in the seeming disorder of
nature, The Golden Circle finds order and predictability in human
behavior. Put simply, it helps us understand why we do what we
do. The Golden Circle provides compelling evidence of how much
more we can achieve if we remind ourselves to start everything we
do by first asking why.
The Golden Circle is an alternative perspective to existing
assumptions about why some leaders and organizations have
achieved such a disproportionate degree of influence. It offers clear
insight as to how Apple is able to innovate in so many diverse
industries and never lose its ability to do so. It explains why people
tattoo Harley-Davidson logos on their bodies. It provides a clearer
understanding not just of how Southwest Airlines created the most
profitable airline in history, but why the things it did worked. It
even gives some clarity as to why people followed Dr. Martin Lu-
ther King Jr. in a movement that changed a nation and why we took
up John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon even after
he died. The Golden Circle shows how these leaders were able to
inspire action instead of manipulating people to act.
This alternative perspective is not just useful for changing the
world; there are practical applications for the ability to inspire, too.
It can be used as a guide to vastly improving leadership, corporate
culture, hiring, product development, sales, and marketing. It even
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
explains loyalty and how to create enough momentum to turn an
idea into a social movement.
And it all starts from the inside out. It all starts with Why.
Before we can explore its applications, let me first define the
terms, starting from the outside of the circle and moving inward.
WHAT: Every single company and organization on the planet
knows WHAT they do. This is true no matter how big or small, no
matter what industry. Everyone is easily able to describe the prod-
ucts or services a company sells or the job function they have within
that system. WHATs are easy to identify.
HOW: Some companies and people know HOW they do WHAT
they do. Whether you call them a “differentiating value proposi-
tion,” “proprietary process” or “unique selling proposition,” HOWs
are often given to explain how something is different or better. Not
as obvious as WHATs, many think these are the differentiating or
motivating factors in a decision. It would be false to assume that’s
all that is required. There is one missing detail:
WHY: Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY
they do WHAT they do. When I say WHY, I don’t mean to make
money—that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose,
cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get
out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?
When most organizations or people think, act or communicate
they do so from the outside in, from WHAT to WHY. And for good
reason—they go from clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. We say
WHAT we do, we sometimes say HOW we do it, but we rarely say
WHY we do WHAT we do.
But not the inspired companies. Not the inspired leaders. Every
single one of them, regardless of their size or their industry, thinks,
acts and communicates from the inside out.
I use Apple Inc. frequently as an example simply because they
have broad recognition and their products are easy to grasp and
START WITH WHY
compare to others. What’s more, Apple’s success over time is not
typical. Their ability to remain one of the most innovative
companies year after year, combined with their uncanny ability to
attract a cultlike following, makes them a great example to
demonstrate many of the principles of The Golden Circle.
I’ll start with a simple marketing example.
If Apple were like most other companies, a marketing message
from them would move from the outside in of The Golden Circle. It
would start with some statement of WHAT the company does or
makes, followed by HOW they think they are different or better
than the competition, followed by some call to action. With that, the
company would expect some behavior in return, in this case a pur-
chase. A marketing message from Apple, if they were like everyone
else, might sound like this:
We make great computers.
They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.
Wanna buy one?
It’s not a very compelling sales pitch, but that’s how most
companies sell to us. This is the norm. First they start with WHAT
they do-—”Here’s our new car.” Then they tell us how they do it or
how they are better—”It’s got leather seats, great gas mileage, and
great financing.” And then they make a call to action and expect a
You see this pattern in business-to-consumer markets as well as
business-to-business environments: “Here’s our law firm. Our law-
yers went to the best schools and we represent the biggest clients.
Hire us.” This pattern is also alive and well in politics—”Here’s the
candidate, here are her views on taxes and immigration. See how’s
she’s different? Vote for her.” In every case, the communication is
organized in an attempt to convince someone of a difference or
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
But that is not what the inspiring leaders and organizations do.
Every one of them, regardless of size or industry, thinks, acts and
communicates from the inside out.
Let’s look at that Apple example again and rewrite the example
in the order Apple actually communicates. This time, the example
starts with WHY.
Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We
believe in thinking differently.
The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products
beautifully designed, sim