Albert Einstein said things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Simon Sinek has a simple idea. Great individuals and organizations start with why. He’s right. But is his image, his metaphor, a bit too simple?
The general public became aware of Simon Sinek after his engaging 2009 TED talk.1 Sinek says most companies start in the wrong place, with what – their product. Great individuals or organizations start with why – their purpose. Sinek calls this “probably the world’s simplest idea.” He’s right. But he gets a little fuzzy in describing how this process actually works. Could Sinek’s metaphor be a bit too simple?
Metaphor means to “carry over” – to transfer an idea over to an image. Sinek’s metaphor is “The Golden Circle.” He says if you look at a cross-section of the human brain from the top down, you see it is broken down into three major components that look like a circle. The neocortex is the outer ring, the what. It’s the rational and analytical part of our brain expressed in language. The middle two rings represent the limbic part of the brain, which Sinek says “is responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, and has no capacity for language.” The limbic brain is where we think how and, in the innermost ring, why. Great organizations start at the center, with why.
There’s only one problem with Sinek’s three-ring circle. If you look at a cross-section of the human brain from the top down, what you see is two hemispheres connected by the corpus callosum. It forms a circle, but not three rings working from the outside in. The two hemispheres operate like a roundtable. The right thinks in metaphor – wrestling with purpose, or why. The left works with words – grappling with how and what. The two hemispheres are supposed to work together in a never-ending cycle of getting closer and closer to the truth. The process is supposed to start in the right hemisphere.
A roundtable seems to better reflect how the brain works. Sinek’s right – most companies start in the wrong place with what and create product. Executive teams then think how to take the product to market and turn a profit. These two functions, what and how, are performed by the left hemisphere. If you imagine the brain operating as a roundtable, you see most companies operate with only half a circle.
The problem is, the right hemisphere doesn’t shut down entirely. It keeps nagging us about purpose. Occasionally an organization proves profitable and executives begin thinking about purpose. Too late. With only half a roundtable, you can’t get there from here. Some do silly exercises – vision, mission, core values, etc. Doesn’t work. You have to start with the right hemisphere, with two different types of leaders already seated at the table – something similar to what we observe in King Arthur’s Roundtable.
On the right side of Arthur’s Roundtable sat Merlin and a court jester. On the left sat the King and his noble knights. In today’s parlance, a wise sage is a Merlin. A devil’s advocate is a court jester. The CEO is king; senior executives are the knights. The sage and devil’s advocate perform the functions of the right hemisphere, the why. They provide “the outside view.”2 Both typically come from outside the industry. A sage transcends narrow definitions of success and helps a roundtable think purpose. A devil’s advocate thinks problems, and contributes after left-hemisphere leaders address what and how. This is how King Arthur’s Roundtable operated, looking first to Merlin to discover purpose, and then relying on the court jester to uncover problems.
With a complete roundtable, great organizations start with a sage and develop a metaphor defining success. The process then rotates to the left hemisphere, where leadership develops product, personnel, processes, etc. The process rotates back to the right. A devil’s advocate highlights overlooked problems, acting as crap detector. Sage and devil’s advocate then suggest corrections and refinements. The cycle continues, returning to the left hemisphere for improved products, processes, etc. But the entire process starts with why – which only happens in the right hemisphere.
Iain McGilchrist believes the bane of the Enlightenment is the idea that great individuals and organizations start with words, not metaphors.3 Neuroimaging reveals this starts the process in the left hemisphere. When organizations start in the left, the right hemisphere is left out. Words lose their meaningful connection to reality. Purpose statements become platitudes, rarely taken seriously or critiqued by a devil’s advocate. Enron is Exhibit A. Company leaders rewrote the purpose statement several times, whittling it to “World’s Greatest Company” shortly before collapsing.
A roundtable is the right metaphor (as well as means) for making ambidextrous organizations. Organizational ambidexterity is being equally adept at using the right and left hemisphere. Truth be told, there are few such organizations in Western cultures. The Enlightenment fosters left-brained organizations cocksure they can get to why with little to no involvement of a sage and devil’s advocate. “We have been cocksure of many things that were not so” was how Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. lamented this catastrophe.
It’s especially lamentable since a roundtable, a never-ending cycle of getting closer and closer to the truth, reflects reality. In this present darkness, we only know “in part” (I Cor. 13:9). Wisdom requires many counselors. A never-ending roundtable also echoes the battle cry of the European Reformers, semper reformanda – always reforming, never-ending. Simon Sinek’s message is right – start with why. His metaphor however can be improved. Start with a sage and complete the roundtable with a devil’s advocate.
1 www.ted.com: “Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action”
2 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), pp. 245-254.
3 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)