It has been a decade since Simon Sinek took the stage and presented one of TED’s all-time most viewed videos titled ‘How great leaders inspire action’. The first time I watched it, I was awestruck. The idea that people don’t buy what you do, rather why you do it links many disciplines in a straightforward and easy-to-digest fashion.
This is not a hit piece on Sinek. I happen to maintain that he is one of the leading business minds of our time. In fact, as a tragic romantic, I once even bought his book as a Valentine’s Day gift. Instead, this is a commentary on how the pursuit of why has been consumed by the populous and whether we are able to transcend it, or at least understand Sinek’s point a little clearer.
Why do we even care about ‘why’?
On almost every possible measure, human beings are better off than at any time in history. Leading thinkers such as Hans Rosling and Steven Pinker (also TED talkers) have published best-sellers in recent years that explain just how much better life is for us today than it was for our parents, grandparents, and especially our great-grandparents.
Regardless of how difficult it might be for a graduate to buy an apartment in London’s Mayfair, New York’s Upper East Side or Sydney’s Double Bay; the graduate survived childbirth, childhood, schooling and university. They were not conscripted to war, sold into slavery, set to work down mineshafts or executed by an enemy tribe.
Of course, there are still horrors to be found around the world. The point is, so few of us are exposed to them by comparison.
Our comparative levels of prosperity can be observed through the lens of another popular framework: Abraham Maslow’s 1943 hierarchy of human needs. Maslow suggested that humans are motivated by tiers of needs. As one tier of needs is satisfied, we are able to ascend to the next tier. To illustrate this point, a starving adult is motivated by food (a physiological need) rather than a good job title (an esteem need).
I would argue that for the vast majority of human existence, our ancestors were motivated by basic physiological and safety needs. They did not have supermarkets or well-built homes, there was no contraception, no fresh water or sewerage. Esteem was certainly attained by some, often symbolised by feathers in headdress, chevrons on the arm, medals on the chest or titles such as lord and lady.
If you asked somebody why they do what they do during this time, they’d probably respond ‘to provide for myself and my family/community’.
In 2019, billions of people around the planet are able to have their basic needs satisfied in a straightforward manner. In most of Europe, North America, Australasia and some parts of Asia, the government will even satisfy these needs on your behalf via social welfare programs. Because of this, more of us than ever before are able to focus on psychological needs such as belongingness and esteem.
Where most of us go wrong with ‘why’
The majority of people I’ve seen wrestle with Sinek’s why, including myself, have done so by operating on the tiers of psychological needs. They’re thinking about a catchy mission statement that could engage their audience, or a set of values that they expect all team members to memorise and recite ad nauseam.
Misuse and misunderstanding of why alongside other concepts like vision, mission, values, purpose, meaning, goals, etc. can cause scepticism among employees and other stakeholders. This emphasises the need for your why to be authentic, rather than co-opted from something you heard an Instagram entrepreneur say during their morning post-yoga vlog.
Your why may therefore take a while to uncover and implement. It may require a whole heap of collaborating and soul searching. In fact, it probably requires us to transcend the psychological needs of belonging and esteem, reaching self-actualisation.