Published On: Tue, Mar 8th, 2016

Ted Talks star Simon Sinek on what makes great leaders – and bad ones


Simon Sinek at TED

Bestselling author Simon Sinek’s 18 minute presentation on how great leaders inspire action1 has been watched by almost 26 million people. That makes it one of the three most popular Ted Talks of all time.

The author of two highly acclaimed books has an army of social media followers. In this fascinating interview he tells SA‘s Alec Hogg about the do’s and don’ts of great leadership.

Sinek spent his first five years in South Africa and still has family there – so not surprisingly closely followed Nelson Mandela whom he rates one of the most inspirational leaders of all time.


Author Simon Sinek joins Alec Hogg. Simon, interesting to see that you actually grew up in South Africa.

I did. I lived there for five years as a kid in Johannesburg and my grandparents lived out their lives there and I still have family there.

Do you visit much?

I haven’t visited in many years I’m sad to say.


Take us through your career because after being born in Wimbledon 42 years ago, coming to South Africa for your first five years, you then moved into a different line of work and one that’s brought you great fame focusing on leadership but what was it about leadership that got you interested?

I didn’t choose to go in this direction. My journey was actually quite organic. I had started a business many years ago. I had a little marketing consultancy and it was exciting for the first few years and then I ran out of love for it and I was very embarrassed by this. Superficially, my life was good. I made a decent living, we had amazing clients, we did good work, but I didn’t want to wake up and do it again the next day. Almost all my energy went into pretending that I was happier, more successful and more in control that I felt. It was a really dark period.

As I said, I was just embarrassed with how I felt because things were superficially good and it wasn’t until a friend came to me and expressed concern for my wellbeing, did that give me the courage to try and solve the problem and the solution that I found was this thing called ‘the why’. Through a confluence of events I was exposed to a friend who started to tell me about the biology of human decision-making and this is when I learned that every single organisation on the planet, even our own careers all function on the same three levels. What we do, how we do it, and why we do it. I knew what I did, I knew how I did it but I couldn’t tell you why and I became obsessed with that because I realised that was the thing that would bring me joy again and it did.

When I discovered my why it restored my passion to levels vastly superior from before and I did what anybody would do. I shared it with my friends, with the people I loved and they started making crazy life changes. They would invite me to share it with their friends and I would help people find their ‘why’ for a hundred Dollars on the side and literally everything from there blossomed. It was completely organic. People just kept on inviting me and asking me would I meet somebody, would I be willing to talk to somebody. Somebody said you should write a book about this and even the way I got the book deal was untraditional. I never wrote a proposal.

Somebody said you should meet this person. I met a publisher who happened to be the God of business publishing, the original publisher of Jim Collins from ‘Good to Great’ and the publisher of Stan McChrystal’s book and Steph Gordon’s books. We had a meeting and three days later they offered me a book deal, so it’s all been organic and I’m but a humble messenger and very grateful to everyone around me who believed in this message and was willing to put their reputations and their relationships on the line to help me share the message.


Simon it’s interesting and we’ll talk about that 2009 TED Talk, which really brought you lots more exposure but many great authors say that they’re almost inspired, that it isn’t really their work, that they’re connected to something bigger than themselves. Do you feel the same way?

A hundred percent, I never set out to be an author; I never set out to be a speaker. I stumbled into this message and had a decision to make. Do I start a consultancy and make money helping people find their why or do I preach the message and expose as many people to the thinking as possible and if my why is to inspire people to do what inspired them then the decision’s an easy one and I became basically a preacher for a different kind of gospel. I believe desperately in this thing and it’s profoundly changed the way I live my life and built my business.


That TED Talk in 2009, it’s now been watched by nearly 26-million people around the world. How did you get invited in the first place and were you really nervous before you went to it because clearly it has been life changing?

Yes, I had already been giving the talk about the why and the golden circle for three years prior to the invitation and it wasn’t an invitation to the main Ted stage, it was a TEDx event held in Seattle in Washington State in America and I was honoured. Of course, it was an honour to get an invitation especially back then when it was still a relatively new thing. I showed up and there were only 50 people in the room.

Some of the other people on the stage, Ed Viesturs, this world-famous mountain climber and Charles Lindbergh’s grandson, these amazing people and I was humbled to be included. I gave an 18 minute version of a talk that I knew well and had been giving for three years and was excited to inspire the people in the room and that motivated me in all my speaking which is – I wasn’t concerned about who was watching on the video. I was concerned about inspiring the people who were standing right in front of me.


When you say you’ve given the talk for three years you must have it pretty polished.

Yes. The thing that scared me was I didn’t think I could do it in 18 minutes. I do like to do it in an hour, hour and a half and therefore, the only scary bit was is this even doable in 18 minutes. I think the reason that it resonated so much and gained such a following was because it’s fundamentally true. It’s fundamentally based on my own personal experience. It’s not an academic study. It’s not a commercial enterprise. It’s the journey of one human being who rediscovered his passion and that’s what we all want, isn’t it?


Kathryn Buford interviews Simon Sinek on “Leaders Eat Last”


“How great leaders inspire action”, that’s the tagline as it were to start with the why. Maybe just for people who haven’t been exposed, those few people outside the 26-million who haven’t see the TED Talk yet, when you focus on the why in even shorter than 18 minutes, what is the message?

As I said before, every single one of us knows what we do. These are the products we sell, the services we offer, and the jobs we do. Some of us know how we do what we do. These are the things that we think make us special or stand out from the crowd. These are the things we write on our CV’s, companies call these their differentiating value propositions and things like that but very few of us can clearly articulate why we do what we do and by why I don’t mean to make money, that’s a result.

By why I mean what’s your purpose, what’s your cause, what’s your belief? Why did you get out of bed this morning? Why did you come to work and why should anyone care? What I’ve learned was that those who understand that deep-seated purpose, cause, or belief that inspires them… Those who can articulate why they inspire those around them and every great leader – everybody from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Junior to Steve Jobs. These people have the capacity to inspire those around them to rise up and be a part of something bigger than themselves whether it’s a social movement or a business, every single one of them thinks, acts, and communicates starting with the why.


You describe yourself as an unshakeable optimist and South Africa really needs some of that right now. In fact, in many ways it would have been great if you’d stayed here for longer than just five years. I’m not sure that you follow events in this country but if you were to consulting to leaders and particularly say, the leadership of South Africa, where does the why begin from a political perspective?

Vision, the thing we can see right. The statement of a more inspiring, better future that does not yet exist is one of the ways the why comes to life. It’s one of the ways a leader expresses their whys. They express a tangible form of it in the shape of a vision and what you find too often in politics today is that people are way more preoccupied with their own jobs than they are with actually serving the greater good of the nation and we see this in businesses as well.

We see executives that are way too preoccupied with their own bonuses and their own salaries and less preoccupied with the well-being of the people who work in the company. It’s the same thing. Just that so few of us would be willing to make sacrifices for our people, well unfortunately we have very few politicians that would sacrifice their jobs for the greater good. I spend a lot of time with men and women in the military and these are people who are willing to give up their lives for something they believe in, yet our politicians won’t even give up their jobs for something they believe it. It becomes about ambition not about idealism and this is the main problem with politics around the world. We’re in the middle of a ridiculous, comical presidential election in the United States and it’s plain to see.

Ambition outstrips idealism and they speak in lofty terms but they don’t actually believe it and we can tell. That’s a real shame. Firstly, we have to find somebody who truly does believe in service and the greater good, in even sacrificing their interests to serve the lives of other human beings. A parent would sacrifice their interests to serve the lives of their children, build them up, and see that they’re capable of – more than they thought they were capable of – for themselves, so too as a great leader to build us up, help us build the confidence, help us learn the skills and the tools so that we too may achieve more than we thought capable, than we thought we were capable of. If you look throughout history all of our great leaders did that for us. They built us up.



Simon, if you were to invert it, because quite often you can see what a good leader is by seeing what a bad leader is. How would you typify or personify a bad leader from your perspective?

A bad leader is more likely to pay attention to what a poll tells them to say than rather telling you what they actually believe. In other words, they would risk being humiliated or risk people disagreeing with them because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s who they actually are. A bad leader uses fear to maintain authority, where a good leader chooses rather to inspire. A bad leader is vengeful and is overly preoccupied with the competition, a good leader tends to ignore the competition, is overly preoccupied with the vision and direction they’re heading. A bad leader wants to win every battle, a good leader understands that sometimes you lose battles you focus on the war. Bad leaders see the people around them as pawns to advance their interests; a good leader sees the people around them as partners where they can advance their common interest. The list goes on.

Those are wonderful examples that you’ve given, but if you happen to be stuck with a bad leader in a country, in a company, in a society how does one get rid of them? Do they eventually overplay their hand or how does it all end up?

Here’s the irony of leadership. The irony of leadership is that the power always belongs to the people. This is why in democracies we know that and in dictatorships the leaders still fear the people. This is why they have fake elections and they bus in paid supporters to give the appearance of popular support, because the people always have the power and sometimes the problem isn’t the people who are in power, the problem is the rest of us who don’t rally together because what bad leaders do very effectively is they keep the people divided.

They like internal strife because the people that are divided, they will never organise against the leader right and effective leadership doesn’t have to happen at the top. It can happen in the middle and the question is, forget about the politicians at the top. Where are the people in the middle? Where are the average people in society who may not even have positions of authority? They may not even be… Look at Lech Walesa who changed Poland. He was a dockyard worker and by the way, I’m a great believer in evolution not revolution. Revolutions tend to be sudden and violent and they always have a counter-revolution and the conditions have to be pretty deplorable that the revolution is the better solution but evolution is about bringing the people together. It’s about bringing collective consciousness together and somebody has to start.

Somebody has to give a speech. Somebody has to write something. Somebody has to offer us something to believe in. Somebody has to be willing to sacrifice for the persons to the left and the person to the right which will in turn inspire those people to sacrifice for the persons left and the persons right. Leadership bubbles up and the question is not about the leaders at the top of the government, the question is where are any of the leaders in the country? Where are the leaders? They can be in schools, they can be teachers, they can be factory workers, they can be entrepreneurs, and they can be CEO’s. Where are the people that care about the people?


Simon Sinek TED


Why aren’t they speaking up? We are seeing in South Africa, interestingly enough, quite a lot of student activism, burning down buildings at universities which is not necessarily something that everybody believes in but is that a step in the right direction that at least people are being heard?

Violence is never a good thing and screaming and yelling is never a good thing because we react to the screaming and yelling right? When you have a fight with someone you love, the minute you swear or insult them you’ve lost the argument even if you were right because the minute you make it personal, the minute you swear they can react to the fact that you are disrespectful or the fact that you’re unhinged which would be legitimate. Rational and peaceful is always better and what I never understand is all of these boring factions, and I use the term loosely, but disagreeing factions of independent thinkers, why don’t they combine forces? Yes we can’t all agree on the right course of action but we can all agree on one thing, that the status quo that we’re being offered is insufficient.

Let’s that start there. Let’s start where we can find common ground. Even if we disagree on the course of action, we can all agree the way it is working now is not good. There must be a better way and if we enter into that engagement in civil discourse and work together to figure out the best course of action and the multiple course that is for that common cause which you have as the rise of leaders. That’s the rise of Nelson Mandela’s, the rise of any great leader. I’ll tell you a quick Mandela story.

The reason Mandela’s important is because he is regarded around the world as a great leader. Different nations have different ideas of who was great and who wasn’t but Mandela, everyone agrees and he was asked by a journalist many years ago, “How did you become a great leader?” He was a son of a tribal chief and he said to the journalist, “I remember going to tribal meetings with my father and I remember two things. We always sat in a circle and my father was always the last to speak” and we’re always telling people you have to be a better listener but we are social animals. We communicate and communication is listening and talking but leadership, the practice of being the last to speak is one of the greatest leadership lessons ever because what it does is multiple things.

Very often, you see this in boardrooms, an executive will walk in and say here’s the problem, here’s what I think we should do but I’m interested in what you all think. It’s too late because people either change their opinions based on what the authority said or they start agreeing with each other or they just don’t give you their candid answers and they no longer feel heard because the executive has already weighed in. For a leader to say this is the challenge we face I want to know what you think without rendering any opinion and then listening and trying to understand, never saying well I disagree with you as he goes around the room or saying ah, that’s a good idea as she points to somebody else.

In other words, giving no hints of agreement or disagreement but rather trying to understand the reason that somebody has that opinion and stating it back in their terms simply to be clear that there’s agreement. By the time we get around the table and get back to the leader, everyone feels heard, everyone feels like they contributed. What’s more, the leader has the benefit of even more perspective and even if the leader renders a decision that is different from what someone in the room believes, everyone feels like they contributed and felt heard. That’s leadership.


It’s not just speaking last but eating last as well. Your second book, which I’ve had the privilege of reading through and thoroughly enjoyed, focuses on perhaps taking that one step further.

Yes, when I say the title of the book is, “Leaders Eat Last’ is a metaphor just like we feed our children before we feed ourselves. How did you know that, did somebody teach you that, did you read that in a book? It’s a parental instinct, it’s a maternal and paternal instinct to take care of our children, to take care of those in our charge, and that’s what true leadership is. It’s not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in our charge. Politics is not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in our charge. When I talk about ‘Leaders eating Last’: though they may be allowed to eat first because of their position or rank… Although they may be afforded perks and advantages simply because of their position at the end of the day true leaders would sooner sacrifice their interest in order to take good care of the people’s lives and never sacrifice the lives of people to take care of their interests. Though they may be entitled to eat first, they choose to eat last as an honest expression of where they understand their loyalties lie.


Simon, how do you read the dilemma of the African Continent? In many ways there’s a swing now back away from democracy back to the big man of Africa you have with Zimbabwe’s president for life, other presidents who are now changing constitutions to try and stay in power for longer. How is that A, able to occur and B, diverted so far from true leadership?

Sure. Winston Churchill’s old quote ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is part of it. Power is intoxicating and even for good leaders there’s still the temptation of money, fame, and authority. It’s a very hard game and only when we have people in our lives who give us honest truths, who aren’t just our friends so they can get some personal gain out of it, can we create the systems of change. I think part of it is also the incentive structures. You get the behaviour. You reward. In a company, if you compensate an executive of a public with stock, he’s going to care much more about the price of the equity than he will about the performance of the company because that’s how he’s compensated. You won’t get the behaviour reward. We do it with our children too. You can only have dessert if you eat your vegetables. Guess what? They eat their vegetables. It’s not complicated.

We have to ask not just Africa, but the rest of the world. Very often, I think the rest of the world treats Africa not as a place of demographic opportunity but a place of exploitation. How do the outside countries and outside leaders treat these rising dictators and are they just using them to get more resources – to get what they want for their economies – rather than dis-incentivising. The question is. where do they incentives come from? You’ve always got the behavioural award. It’s not easy. It’s complicated and at the end of the day, I hope that there’s some young leader somewhere who will rise up and show us how it’s done.


You’re spot-on with that one. You’ve done a lot of work with the military. It’s quite evident in your book ‘Leaders eat last’ where you do talk about the marines. Have you come across the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) approach towards leadership? Bishop-General George Casey is somebody who’s promoting that, for instance.

Not per se.

From your perspective, what did the military teach you about leadership?

The journey of ‘Leaders eat last’ began with a few experiences. I’d met some people whom we consider heroes, who really did risk their lives to save the lives of others. When I asked them, “Why did you do it?” they simply responded, “Because they would have done it for me.” I was so struck by these people that I wanted to know where they came from because in the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain and in the private sector, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain. In other words, we have it backwards. I wanted to know for the simple reason that I would rather work with people like the heroes than with the people that I actually worked with.

I wanted to know where they came from and my original conclusion was that they’re better people. The more I started to learn and the more I started to research, I discovered that it’s not the people. It’s the environment. If you take good people and you put them in a bad environment, they’re capable of doing bad things. If you take people who may have done prior bad acts and may not be trustworthy, and you put them in a good environment; they’re capable of turning their lives around and becoming remarkable and productive members of society. In other words, it’s never the people. It’s always the environment. We are social animals and we responds to the environments we’re in, and that’s why leaders matter. Leaders set the environment. If the leader gets the environment right, trust and cooperation are standard. If the leader gets the environment wrong, cynicism, paranoia, mistrust, and self-interest prevail.

At a company level, at a small group, and even at a nation state level. Get the environment right and we take care of each other. Get the environment wrong and we prioritise/take care of ourselves at the expense of others.


How do we as citizens (or particularly citizens in a democracy) promote or encourage good leaders – those heroes amongst us?

I get this question a lot, especially in corporate environments. In middle management people say, “I don’t have control over the company and the CEO doesn’t get it. What do I do?” The answer is, “You cannot control the things you cannot control.” To obsess about what the people at the top are doing when you have no influence over them is a fool’s game, and so my advice is always the same. Obsess about the things you can control. Worry about the people whose names you know and whose faces you recognise. It’s called the law of ‘diffusion and innovation’. This is how change happens. Even in the nation, if you’re dissatisfied with leadership, you can’t accept that the times you get to vote or protests – you actually have no control over their decisions. Our responsibility is to build the companies, to build the institutions, to create the families where we’re obsessed about the wellbeing of each other, and that becomes the norm.

No leader can challenge what becomes a societal norm. I would argue that our leaders might be a reflection of us. Are they the problem or are we the problem? Are we getting the leaders we deserve? I would say jet’s take a hard look at ourselves and ask, “Are we acting as the leaders we wish we had? Are we being the leaders we wish we had?” Let us prioritise the wellbeing of the people around us. Let us be willing to sacrifice our short-term interest for the long-term good of our families, our organisations, our friends, and our colleagues. Let us be willing to say, “I don’t understand. I need help. I made a mistake” and allow others to come to our aid. Trust is not built when we offer help.Trust is built when we ask for help and great leaders ask for help from the citizens1. Maybe we are the ones who need to make the change first. That is what I would recommend.


The good thing is that your message is getting through and can be amplified so much now through social media. I was having a look at your enormous followings that you have on Twitter (more than 200, 000) and 250, 000 people on Facebook. Are you seeing reflections or manifestations of how that is affecting society?

I’m embarrassed that I have a career. I talk about things like trust and cooperation and there should be no demand for my work. The fact that there is demand for my work is, I will say, an opportunity. The fact that people want to read about it and hear about it – the things that I talk about – and how to build trust and cooperation means that they don’t feel like they have the trusting, cooperative relationships they wish they had at work, in politics, or anywhere else. I’m proud to be a foot soldier in this movement and to anyone who is out there with me joining forces; my work resonates with people and has popularity because we need each other. Me preaching a cause is useless if others aren’t willing to actually change the way in which they lead and change their own behaviours. Then I’m just a blowhard. At the same time, people who are trying to figure it out by themselves – it’s lonely – and sometimes we don’t always know what we’re doing. If I’m lucky enough to have had an idea or two that can help advance, help people gain clarity, get the answers they need, and even just find the language that’s been inside them all along to help them express their own feelings about what they’re trying to do then I’m honoured to play that role. I think the reason my work has gained a following is because it’s human, honest, and true and we all need each other. As I said, I’m a proud and humble servant of those who help me spread the message.

Authentic. Authentic. Authentic. Simon, when’s your next book coming out? You’ve had two so far. Are you working on something?

Yes, there are a few in the works, believe it or not. One is coming out at the end of this year, which is just a nice book. It’s a book of quotes. Just a little bit of inspiration to remind us to be the kind of leaders we wish we were, or to be the kind of leader we need in our lives – just little reminders. Then there’s a version of ‘Start with why’ that I’m writing for 12 to 16-year olds, which I’m really excited about, to give kids a head start on what it means to start with ‘why’ so they don’t have to learn like the rest of us. It’s too late. There’s another book where I’m exploring a new theory. It’s another ‘thinky-thinky’ book like ‘Start with why’ and ‘Leaders eat last’ where I take a look at game theory and compare how our organisations, societies, and nation states treat each other based on game theory. That’s absolutely fascinating. I’ve become really enamoured by it. Lots of books in the works.

Where do you get your inspiration from? Who do you read?

I tend not to read things in my own category and my inspiration comes from the conversations I have. For me, it’s more important to be away from my desk than at my desk. When I travel, I get to meet people who truly are inspiring and know a lot more about this subject than I do and I get to hear them and have conversations with them. It gives me ideas and it’s the conversations, the interactions, and the learning… I show up everywhere I go, as a student. I don’t consider myself an expert on leadership. I’m very embarrassed when people introduce me as an expert in leadership. I’m a student at leadership. My education may be more advanced than some others, but I’m still a student at leadership. I don’t know all the answers. I’m always learning and I’m always looking to refine and no matter who I meet or where I go, I show up as a student.

So is it these conversations that give you that unshakeable optimism, as you call yourself?

Absolutely. The questions you ask, the way you phrase your questions…you’re forcing me to think in ways I didn’t think before and haven’t been thinking. The answers I’m giving to you are me solving the problem that you asked, out loud. I’m going to go back and listen to this interview when it comes out because there are things that you and I have talked about, which I want to explore further. This is how I learn. This has been wonderful.

It’s been wonderful for us as well Simon, and lovely to know the South African connection is there, not just through your admiration for our Nelson Mandela, but the fact that you spent five years of your life here – maybe the most formative years of your life (some psychologists might say).

It’s possible. It’s very possible.

We look forward to those new books of your as well. Simon Sinek, author of ‘Start with why’ and ‘Leaders eat last’. He’s also one of the top three best-watched TED Talks of all time. The one that he gave in September 2009 has been watched by 26-million people. It’s been a privilege. Thank you for joining us today.

An honour. Thank you very much.




Read more about: , , ,

Wordpress site Developed by Fixing WordPress Problems