Great leaders inspire by communicating why the organization exists. So says Simon Sinek in his book, “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action.” Actually the book is surprisingly poorly written–should have been an article, rather than a book. Or, yet, it’s better as a short talk-–as his appearance at the TED Talks generated millions of views.

His idea is insightful. Why do you work?

Jim Cahill asked, in the same vein, why we join professional associations. Unfortunately, only I commented on that. I guess that, in itself, describes the problem of such associations as ISA.

Let’s look at the inverse for a moment.
– Micromanaging kills enthusiasm by removing chances for creativity and a feeling of owning a job.
– Just filling a position without defined purpose kills engagement.
– Manipulating people leads to distrust.

Let’s take this thought a step further.

Would you follow the leadership of someone who is consistent, has a consistent message, who keeps confidentialities? Or a micro-manager who manipulates, cannot make a decision, is emotionally volatile?

The second (and last, really) good point Simon Sinek makes in his book “Start with Why” is the value of trust. He uses two stories from the airline industry–Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines and Gordon Bethune of Continental (now United). He also uses the examples without the irony of time.
Kelleher posited the notion “that it is the company’s responsibility to look after the employees first. Happy employees ensure happy customers, he said. And happy customers ensure happy shareholders–in that order.”

Bethune shared that notion. When he became CEO in 1994, he said, “I could see Continental’s biggest problem the second I walked in the door. It was a crummy place to work. You can’t have a good product without people who like coming to work.”

And Bethune succeeded. (Note: I fly Continental/United, in fact I’m Premier Platinum this year.) The company’s performance improved dramatically and it was a good enough place to work that a loyal passenger like me noticed.

But… The board of directors eventually decided that they needed a cost cutter CEO and moved Bethune to retirement and brought in a finance guy (I call them “bean counters”) Larry Kellner. It didn’t take an entire year for him to begin to reverse all the policies and attitudes that made Bethune successful. He was succeeded by a mergers and acquisitions attorney Jeff Smisek when the board moved toward a merger/acquisition with United–a failed airline that was as bad as Bethune’s “crummy place to work.” And Smisek drove employee attitudes further down. Although neither could succeed in making it as bad as United.

On the other hand, Kelleher carefully bred successors who bought into the philosophy and who have consistently kept the airline moving in the right direction.

Another example from the book is that of Wal-Mart. Sam Walton was a leader in the same mold as Kelleher and Bethune. But when he died, the values he embodied died with him. Wal-Mart began focusing on pure cost cutting. It lost its focus on employees and their enthusiasm. It lost its ethics and has been rocked by scandals.

Trust takes time to build. It can be destroyed in an instant.

This week, define your why. If it doesn’t inspire, find something that does. And then inspire someone else.

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