Why? How Great Leaders Inspire Action

We are too often programmed to start with "the what and the how" -- the service or product and the way it does its thing -- and omit the greater value of it all.
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Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Simon Sinek's TEDTalk has gained over 13 million viewers yet what he has to say is nothing new. But it is clear and punchy and makes it all sound so easy. Anyone can be a Steve Jobs, a Martin Luther King, an Orville or Wilbur Wright. Anyone can sell products beyond belief, gather legions of followers or master powered manned flight. What's the secret? Sinek seems to know.

Sinek's message is that people buy products or enter movements on the basis of 'why', not on the basis of what is being done. He paints Apple not as a computer company but rather closer to a revolution meant to change the status quo; we are drawn to Apple because we too want to be first, creative and iconoclastic. We follow Dr. King because he speaks to what we believe; we march for ourselves, our beliefs, not his: he says "I have a dream... not I have a plan." And the Wrights? Well they wanted not to just fly; they wanted to change the course of history (by introducing manned flight).

Sinek even tosses in a bit of neuroscience pointing out that while the "outside" layer of our brain, the neocortex," is rational that it is our "inner" limbic brain, feeling and instinctual, that compels our actions.

What I learned from this TEDTalk was how critical it is to start an organization's message with its purpose, its mission, its humanity, and its values. I knew about how important those are, but maybe had not quite been converted to the necessity of painting those in neon at the front of every media communication and social conversation.

I did not need to learn, but I was nicely reminded, that in the end we all do what serves us -- whether our aims be noble, altruistic, material or self-serving. It is a very good thing when virtue finds a cause or a leader of a cause. I suppose that is what Margaret Mead meant when she said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." I suppose that is what Gandhi meant when he inverted the change message to say "Be the change that you wish to see in the world." But, of course, it is a very bad thing when evil finds a leader who can change hearts, not just minds; history is replete with tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, and even Jim Jones (cult leader of the Jonestown, South Africa, massacre).

But I do think Sinek needs a bit more neuroscience instruction since instinct has not always been a friend. Without a neocortex, a thinking brain, we would not have law, some measure of equality and civilization.

Sinek's talk, however, is indeed worth the 18 minutes he entertainingly delivers. Not only to help sell more iPads, sneakers, and alcoholic beverages; not only to engage others in our mission, whatever might that be. But because we are too often programmed to start with "the what and the how" -- the service or product and the way it does its thing -- and omit the greater value of it all.

In fact, starting with the purpose, the why, could very well disclose the essence of something. It could reveal whether something or someone deserves to be bought or followed. It might demand that whatever is offered demonstrate, in its small, vast or unique way, that it could elevate our society and make the world a better place. Or not.

Dr. Sederer's new book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, published by WW Norton, is now available.


The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

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