Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash


There is a great Ted talk on the topic of inspirational leadership from Simon Sinek. If you haven’t watched this clip, it’s well worth doing so before reading any further.

[ED: You’ll benefit enormously from watching it, regardless of what follows, but more importantly, the argument below will make precisely no sense without an understanding of the original video.]

In this talk, Sinek describes a model of “inspirational leadership” that suggests great leaders inspire action by “starting with why”. As powerful as this message is, and as successful as that clip has been (>41 million views!) I found myself running into a conceptual ditch with the ordering of the instructions as it related to my experience with leadership.

When describing his “Golden Circle”, Sinek says to “start with why”, which makes total sense to me (see below), then goes on to suggest the next step is to explain “how”, with the final step being describing “what”. He uses a number of examples from Apple through to Martin Luther King to make his point.

It took me quite some time to work out why this framework made me uncomfortable. I think that it was because I didn’t find the advice particularly relevant for leading teams of engineers. It felt like it was more about pitching a message to consumers who you would like to inspire to buy your product or service. To be fair, it’s great advice in that regard, and the examples used are very compelling, but they are more examples of creating a compelling and behaviour motivating marketing and sales messages than they are examples of leadership.

I suspect that I will get some pushback on this point of view. When I suggested to a colleague that I had an issue with my interpretation of this seminal piece of work, the response was pretty icy. So I went away and thought about why it didn’t work completely for me as framework for leadership.

My main objection with the framing — at leat as it relates to leadership — is that it gets “how” and “what” around the wrong way. In my experience, what most smart people tend to look for in leadership is articulation of vision first, then a sense of the prioritised set of things that need to be done. The last thing that smart people want their managers to do is tell them how to actually do the individual components of their jobs.

This led me to believe that the correct order should really be why / what / how, at least from my perspective building and growing engineering teams. Framed this way, leadership ends up being more about telling a compelling story that explains the vision (why), collaborating with peers on the prioritised set of things that need to be done (what), and then getting out of the way and letting the experts work out how to execute it all (how).

In short:

  • The role of Leadership is to create a compelling vision by telling a great story about why the business exists
  • Peers then go on to collaborate to define and prioritise what needs to be done
  • Teams and individuals then have the opportunity to take full and accountable autonomy over how it all comes together

With full respect to the original, I now routinely use this reordered version as “why / what / how” when leading my teams. The biggest insight I have had here is with the how. One of the best ways to foster engagement is through autonomy, but even in highly creative endeavours, autonomy needs some guard rails. Setting a vision by explaining why, then collaborating on what creates those guard rails in a truly empowering manner, leaving those who do the real creative work with the freedom to work out how it should all come together.


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