The Awesome Responsibility of Leadership: An Interview With Simon Sinek

Simon Sinek is a world renowned speaker and the author of two books: the global best seller, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and his newest best seller, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. Simon has devoted his life to sharing his thinking in order to help other leaders and organizations inspire action.

Simon is also a trusted advisor who is helping us create the space for people to become their greatest selves, and inspire others to do the same by improving internal communication and performance management. In our second interview, Simon discusses how leaders are responsible for putting their interests aside so that others will feel safe and find fulfillment.

The WHY Behind Simon Sinek

Simon’s WHY is to inspire people to do what inspires them, so together we can change our world. He speaks, writes, teaches, advises, and creates products to spread that message.

He envisions a world where the vast majority of people wake up every single morning inspired to go to work, feel safe when they’re there, and go home fulfilled at the end of the day.

Fulfillment and the ability to say I love my job is not a luxury, it’s a right. It’s not a privilege for the lucky few. We can demand of our leaders that they create a great country and protect us, so too can we demand that they provide a work environment where we want to show up every day.

Work-life Balance is Nonsense

The only difference between who we are at home and who we are at work, is the clothes we wear and the desk where we sit. If we feel safe at home and not at work, that’s the imbalance. If we have issues at home, that will affect how we perform at work. If we have stress and issues at work, that will effect how we are at home with our spouses, children and friends.

In well-led organizations people have happier marriages and get along better with their children. How late people work and how many business trips they take has little to no effect on raising children. It’s how stressed we are when we get home that has the greatest impact on those relationships.

Leaders can create an intervention to transform a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. A leader says, “Your performance is down this month, is everything ok?” We take home that empathy — that very human quality– and then say to our spouse, “I’m sorry that I’ve been acting this way. Are you ok?”

The Business Joke

Simon puts the onus on leaders to break the vicious cycle, but many leaders say that it’s not their responsibility. But here’s the kicker…it’s good for business! That’s the joke!

Companies struggle with employee engagement. What do you think makes people engaged? Their desire to be there, their feeling that somebody cares about them and their work on a daily basis as human beings.

Companies struggle with innovation. Well, how innovative do you think people are when they think that they’re out of a job if they miss their numbers? Are they going to give you their all or walk around afraid every day?

Innovation comes when we give people a purpose or a cause and make them feel valued as a member of the team. Then they will give their blood, sweat, and tears to make that vision a reality. They will give all their best ideas, not because they are holding them back, but because they are naturally having more of them as the result of the supportive environment.

Shifting Leadership

CEOs say “our people matter”, but they don’t follow through. CEOs will say, “our number one priority is growth. Of course our people are important because if we don’t take care of them we’ll never grow.” Or they can say, “Our number one priority is our people. If we take care of our people, we will achieve all of our financial goals.” Which company do you want to work for?

Businesses today are suffering from the unintended consequences of decisions made in the 80s and 90s, that have set us on this path. Shareholder supremacy, a theory proposed in the late 1970s, has now become standardized. Using mass layoffs to balance the books did not exist in the United States prior to the 1980s. They have become so normal that nobody thinks they’re wrong. 

Can you imagine sending someone home unable to provide for the family because the company did not make its yearly numbers? And the people who keep their jobs still have to come to work knowing that it’s not a meritocracy. No matter how hard you work, if you’re numbers aren’t hit, you’re toast.

In our system, when a company has mass layoffs, the stock price goes up. So companies incentivize and reward senior managers not on how the company performs, but how the equity performs. When the equity performs well in response to something that’s necessarily bad for the company, that behavior will continue.

The Leadership Tipping Point

I asked Simon how we can create a world where the majority of business leaders realize the simple truth — take care of your people first and you will be successful.

Simon knows that rational arguments won’t work to convince people to change. Every single month Harvard Business Review writes an article about this subject, which people read but don’t take action. This is how change will come about:

1. The Law of Diffusion of Innovation

All populations sit somewhere on the bell curve with certain standard deviations, and you have to convince 15-18% to buy-in. That is where the tipping point occurs. Try to convince the majority and it falls on deaf ears. Instead try to convince the early adopters – the few who are interested and willing to take a risk and try. Have the discipline to only work with people who will listen in earnest, and achieve critical mass with that group.

2. Know your piece of the jigsaw puzzle

We all have a piece of the puzzle. When we find other people with whom our piece fits we call them over. We help each other, work together and align our actions. You have to know what your piece of the puzzle is. What 15Five is doing, that’s a piece of the puzzle. By itself it cannot make the whole picture. What Simon is doing, that’s another piece of the puzzle. He travels around and tells people, “hey guys, that’s what the picture looks like when you complete the puzzle. Don’t forget the picture.”

Find enough of the people where the pieces fit together and we can create the tipping point and change the world. 

Leaders Work for the People

I believe that one of the things that will have the system tip is when employees know that they don’t have to put up with negative, fearful environments. When they have the option to work at companies that get it, others will have no choice but to adapt.

Simon says that the most important lesson of great leadership is that leaders always work for the people. That’s why dictators always keep people divided. If the people are divided, the dictator stays in power. If the people come together, the dictator is out.

We are all so worried about our own jobs and our own hides that some of these misdirected leaders and their policies remain. If we join together and demand that leaders create environments where we feel like we belong, then we will win. Businesses will transform into places where people are truly inspired to be productive and willingly contribute.

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