How Great Leaders Inspire Action: Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle”


Simon Sinek, author of the 2009 book “Start With Why”, describes the essential element of inspiring leadership in this meaty little TED Talk.  He encapsulates beautifully the approach that Rockwood Leadership Institute and master leadership trainer Robert Gass have used for years in their approach to “inside-out” leadership, using the metaphor of what he calls the “Golden Circle”.

Imagine a dart board with three rings.  The outer ring represents the “what” of leadership and action. This is comfortable terrain for the vast majority of leaders, who are readily able to articulate what they do.  The middle rings speaks to “how”  – and indeed, a smaller subset of people are able to articulate how they accomplish what they do. But the key to transformative, powerful leadership, Sinek argues, lies in the smallest, center circle – which is all about “why” a leader does what s/he does – their deepest purpose. From Martin Luther King to Apple computers, Sinek asserts that great leaders are driven from this core place of purpose-driven leadership.

And these three rings, he says, correspond to the layers of the human brain. The outer layer of the brain, the neocortex or “homo sapiens brain”, is the latest development in our species’ evolution – it’s the fancy neurological wrapping that is responsible for language, the processing of facts and data, and rational thought.  The middle two sections of the brain are the limbic brain – the far more ancient components of our neurobiology. The limbic brain is responsible for feelings such as trust and loyalty, fear and desire. It is also  limbic brain is also responsible for all decision-making. It has no capacity for language. As Sinek (as well as Drew Weston and a host of others) articulates so well, when we communicate from the outside in – that is, starting from facts and analysis – we are not communicating to the place where people actually make decisions. But when we communicate – and lead – from the inside out, we are speaking directly to the parts of the human brain that control decision-making. The neo-cortex will then follow, rationalizing that behaviour.

Sinek also talks about the Theory of Social Innovation, including the elusive “tipping point”, beyond which a new idea or innovation attains enough momentum to continue moving through a community. (For a brief overview of this concept, see my 2007 post, “the trajectory of social change”).  Whether describing King as the leader of the Civil Rights movement or the Wright Brothers as leaders and creators of modern aviation, Sinek briefly maps out the kind of purpose-driven leadership that was essential to the eventual success of these great leaders.

1 Comment

Filed under Ideas, Leadership

One response to “How Great Leaders Inspire Action: Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle”

  1. Hi Suzanne,

    the Golden Circle indeed has been an inspirational tool for many leaders and companies.

    Also for us. So much so, that we decided to make a short and clear animation explaining the concept of the Golden Circle. For everyone who is working with the Golden Circle, or wants to do so.

    On You Tube:

    On the website of Getting the picture
    http://gtp.nl/page/goldencircle/

    We hope this video helps leaders and companies to start working from the inside out.

    Best wishes,

    Fleur van Wijck

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