COMMENT BY WENDY LAMBOURNE OF LEGITIMATE LEADERSHIP ON THIS ARTICLE: The following words of wisdom from Simon Sinek accord absolutely with the Legitimate Leadership principles and practices: be open to counsel and have a vision of the future; change the “what” and “how” but not the “why”; the results matter, but leadership more so; focus on process not outcome and don’t miss the mountain due to a fixation on the summit.
ADRIAN GORE’S ARTICLE: In early June 2020 an excellent public dialogue webinar was hosted with Simon Sinek. All proceeds from the webinar went to South African community service organisation Afrika Tikkun (a client of Legitimate Leadership – editor) which works in underprivileged communities.
Simon reflected on a range of issues. I wanted to share a few of the main themes. Many of you will be familiar with Simon’s own journey of becoming a successful entrepreneur, and the challenges that came with it, until he came to understand the three levels of what, how and why – the so-called “Golden Circle” – that it is purpose that drives successful individuals and businesses.
When we think of leadership we often think about power, authority and control. Simon highlighted leadership qualities that get less prominence but are fundamentally more effective and enduring.
One comes from South Africa’s own former president Nelson Mandela who shared with Simon a story of his father (a local chief) who when meeting with others would always sit in a circle – and speak last. True leadership involves humility, being open to others, and expressing empathy. Simon pointed to the experience we’ve seen in the Covid-19 pandemic – with female leaders that exhibit these qualities typically faring better in their national responses: think of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen and Germany’s Angela Merkel. Simon stressed that in a moment of crisis, it’s important to be open to counsel and have a vision for the future – the combination keeps people effective and inspired.
In Simon’s view, Covid-19 is not unprecedented in the pressure it is creating for businesses to transform. For example, the advent of the internet saw the demise of whole industries as some doubled down on old business models, while newer companies that thought differently thrived. Consider the following examples: there is no reason that eBook and Kindle could not have been invented by a publishing company, or Netflix by the broadcasting industry – they had far more resources and knowledge – it’s because they were stuck with old business models in a new world. We are seeing the same thing now. Those companies doing a better job of pivoting their businesses have a forward-looking view. Another difference is that those who are struggling tend to put themselves at the centre – it’s about company survival – while those doing well are putting the customer first. They are being creative with the resources they have. He gave an example of Chicago pizza shop Dimo’s who had to stop selling pizza by the slice, and realised they could use their super-hot pizza oven to melt plastic and create face shields, providing PPE to healthcare workers. The crisis is forcing companies to deliver on their ‘why’ – albeit in different manifestations.
The pandemic has also laid bare the fragility of the economy, and Simon reflected on the long-lasting changes that may be ingrained in the generation living through this while coming of age. We saw how those who were teens during the World Wars became frugal for their entire lives – what changes will we see in a generation whose course of life has now been irreparably changed?
Simon also spoke about what business can learn from the military, and the misconceptions about its culture and its leadership. Simon noted that the military is constantly trying to prepare people to operate in situations of extreme stress where nothing goes according to plan. There is a saying that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy; the analogy in business being that no plan ever survives contact with reality. Leadership is therefore critical, yet most businesses have poor or no business leadership training. In business we promote our top performers, not our best leaders. In the military, performance is important but the focus is on intangibles like loyalty, honour and caring deeply about those in your charge. Military leadership courses don’t assess the outcome of tests, but whether, while performing that test, you exhibited the qualities of a good leader. They understand that in the unpredictability of battle, bad missions can happen to good leaders, and good missions to bad leaders. Performance is important, but leadership more so.
In his now famous talk on millennials in the workplace, Simon comments on the factors that informed the context of the millennial generation, and their unique challenges and outlooks. What he observes most often is an impatience to reach their goals without appreciating the process of getting there – missing the mountain for the summit, in his analogy.
And while Millennials are often accused of ‘slacktivism’, we are seeing in Generation Z (typically born around 2004), a more active generation that organises and participates in protests, with a greater willingness to show up and do the work to create change. Simon’s view is that you cannot have service without sacrifice: while donations are helpful, it’s the physical work of showing up that creates a real sense of goodwill.
When asked about mentorship, Simon was of the view that mentorship is more akin to a friendship than one person bestowing their knowledge uni-directionally. Two qualities of a good mentor are that they evolve and always have time for you. Simon shared his own story of a mentor relationship that involved mutual learning – he wasn’t always the student and his mentor wasn’t always the teacher. They learnt from each other.
Finally, Simon spoke about his own company’s journey to survive in a time of Covid-19 and how they went back to their ‘why’ – their purpose of inspiring people to do the things that inspire them. They built an entirely new section on their website in two weeks, transitioned to online learning and made these live to maintain the human connection. People learned how to present online and the whole team came together behind a new way of doing things. They not only pivoted the business, they pivoted themselves.