Original Interview with Rank & File magazine.
Award winning author, motivational speaker and leadership guru Simon Sinek, who uses the power of storytelling with a parable-like quality, first planted his concepts of “Start With Why” and “The Golden Circle” into the hearts of our corporate executives back in 2009, spawning one of the most popular TED Talks of all time.
To date, Simon has penned two best sellers — “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” and “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t.” Beyond writing, Simon works as an adjunct staff member of the RAND Corporation, one of the most highly regarded think tanks in the world, and he regularly comments for respected local and national media outlets like NPR and The New York Times.
Accolades aside, Simon embodies his teachings. He is approachable, humble and generous with his time. These character traits are exactly what made Rank & File aspire to sit down with Simon to discuss social entrepreneurialism, including the biggest mistakes that social entrepreneurs make, why cultivating inner character is a critical step in the leadership journey, and how leaders should become guiding “Cause Holders” for their companies. During our interview, we spoke in length about the benefits and dangers in the growing social enterprise trend — a topic about which Simon holds some strong opinions.
“I like the idea of social entrepreneurship, but to fully embrace the goodness of social entrepreneurship you have to treat everyone right,” he told Rank & File. “Not just the chosen receivers of your goodness.”
Simon went on to explain that he thinks the term “social enterprise” may be thrown around too loosely. From Simon’s view, the key to developing a successful and impact-driven social enterprise is to first look internally before projecting externally. Practically, this means focusing heavily on your company’s foundational values and character and allowing this core element to act as the lead domino for all of your outward-facing programs.
“You have all these well-intended young entrepreneurs out there [wanting] to do something of social importance, looking externally,” said Simon. “And yet, while building their companies, they may mistreat their own people. It’s like being a child psychologist but abusing your own children. It doesn’t make sense. And so I find it fascinating how people can be so obsessed with an external while ignoring the internal. To be good at anything, in any company, it has to start from within.”
This challenge comes at an opportune time, as thousand of young people approach social entrepreneurialism with a new enlightenment to accomplish social good through their startups. So what are the keys then to fully embrace the calling of our responsibilities as social entrepreneurs? How do we go forth as strong leaders that focus internally when we may be fighting to keep all the wheels on our fragile businesses in the marketplace? Sinek’s teachings challenge us to dig deep.
In the spirit of shifting our perspectives to focus on the internal rather than the external, Simon encourages us to cultivate humility.
We social entrepreneurs have a tendency to view our business models as superior to mainstream programs and organizations. Indeed, we are often guilty of forming cliques and belittling traditional methods of conducting business and outreach.
From Simon’s perspective, abandoning this superiority complex and developing humility will actually allow us to have greater social impact, both personally and professionally.
“[Having] the word ‘social’ in your product or business [mission] doesn’t actually mean that you are a good company,” said Simon. “And not doing those [social good] things doesn’t make you a bad company. You can make any type of widget and treat people right. And the people who work for you will have better marriages, treat their kids better, and treat people that they interact with on a daily basis better, and they will have a great impact on the community.”
Simon didn’t disparage the value of social entrepreneurship or individuals’ desires to achieve social outcomes through their business models. Yet, his advice cuts through the hype often associated with the social good sector, reminding us to get back to the core — the ABC’s, so to speak — of what it means to be a social entrepreneur. Among other things, having a humble attitude entails respecting traditional business models who conduct their affairs with integrity and treat their employees and stakeholders with dignity.
Become a Holder of Your Cause.
In the social enterprise space, we hear a lot about “social innovation,” especially as it relates to sustainable energy and technology. But what do we mean when we use the term? Usually, we’re describing a tangible, specifically applied approach to making change through new models while challenging norms and bureaucracies, achieving new levels of efficiency, and defending the inherent rights and dignity of human beings.
However, Simon pointed out that these models are only social enterprise products. He developed this idea using a classic example: Apple.
“The product, no matter what it is, is just the manifestation of an underlying cause,” he said. “Steve Jobs’ obsession was empowering people to stand up to the status quo. That was their cause. The personal computer was the manifestation of their cause — a product that gave an individual power to compete against a corporation.”
Next came the iPhone. Prior to Apple, cell phone functionality was determined by cell service providers. “Apple showed up and said, ‘No, we are going to tell you what the phone will do,’’ placing all of the power into the hands of cell phone manufacturers and, ultimately, consumers themselves. With the development of the iPhone, Apple challenged the status quo yet again, fulfilling one of Jobs’ core values.
“The key for Apple and all of us is not confusing our innovations or our products as our cause,” said Simon. “They are three separate things. Innovation doesn’t come from our social desire to give and solve world poverty, although it’s a great thing to do. The innovation comes from actually having a disposition, actually having a cause, and actually having a why…”
Remember that your social innovation models and your solutions to problems are not your cause. They are your products and services.
Identify your root cause. What is your underlying motivation for developing these innovative products and services? Dig deep — past the tangible, past your approach, past your mission statement, and past your goals and objectives. Ask yourself “Why?” again and again until you know what underlying motivation or belief is fueling your efforts. Then keep your cause at the forefront of everything that you do…
Note : The full version of this story, including Simon’s 7 Steps for Students of Leadership, is available in Rank & File Magazine.