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Want Success? Examine Your Why

Have you ever wondered why two hospitals—similar in size, staff talent, infrastructure, market base, etc.—achieve very different results? Or why two individuals—with almost the same paper qualifications, experience, resources and challenges, etc.—accomplish disparate levels of success?

The answer can be summarized in one word: Purpose.

I’ve given this topic quite a lot of thought in recent years but a TED Talk by Simon Sinek, the video of which I watched a few weeks ago, really hit the spot for me. (The same video can be found at the end of this article.)

The Golden Circle

A trained ethnographer, Sinek developed a simple yet profound model—“The Golden Circle”—which explains how inspirational leaders and companies achieve sustainable breakthrough success (while others don’t). See the figure on the right.


According to Sinek, everyone knows What they do. Hospitals provide a multitude of diagnostic, therapeutic and other services. Individuals may perform medical, nursing, administrative, quality management, or other roles. These are the things most easily observable by other people.


Some people know How they do what they do. A hospital might, for example, develop a unique selling proposition (USP) of “enhancing the patient experience through technology”. When I was an employee in a hospital, my unique value proposition was to help leaders in the organization make better decisions so that they could achieve their goals.


However, Sinek asserts, very few people and organizations know Why they do what they do, i.e. their purpose, cause or belief—why the organization/individual exists in the first place.

WHAT → How → Why

Sinek argues that most people think, act and communicate from outside The Golden Circle inward, i.e. What How Why. Our experience certainly concurs with his view. Most hospital leaders tend to focus their time and energies on What and How, leaving little room to properly consider Why.

An organization might have mission, vision and value statements but this doesn’t necessarily mean it has a Why—these statements are hollow if they fail to be reflected in the organizational leadership and culture.

Like organizations, many persons that I come across are keen to tell me what they do, show off their credentials, and/or emphasize their affiliation with some big-name organization(s). Don’t get me wrong—there is absolutely nothing wrong about communicating the things you do (especially if you do them well) or how you do them—but oftentimes I don’t get a good feel for what drives people, what makes them get out of bed every morning (if anything), what makes them tick. Their life purpose remains some fuzzy amorphous thing.

WHY → How → What

The inspired leaders and organizations work from the inside out, i.e. Why How What. Their starting point is a core belief/cause/purpose which transcends everything that they do—including How and What.

Sinek offers a scientific rationale for this phenomenon: the part of the human brain responsible for decision making and behaviour responds to the inside-out (and not the outside-in) communication approach.

My thoughts on this matter are more empirically based than neuroscientific. People who have a sense of purpose are passionate about their work, take calculated risks, act with conviction, and are more productive. They are innovative in problem solving and resilient in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Their enthusiasm is not easily emulated (read: hard to fake) by others but, if present, is often contagious. There is usually no need to ask them Why they do what they do because it is self-evident.

It’s not hard to see why organizations and people who start with Why have the potential to be incredibly successful.


Today’s organizations and individuals tend to focus on How and What—operations and results. While these are vital elements of any endeavour, you can achieve breakthrough and sustainable success, differentiate your brand and breed loyalty by also examining your Why.

TEDxPugetSound—Simon Sinek—September 17, 2009

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • ALABI June 21, 2011, 7:57 pm

    you are changing me to the Man i ought to be…

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