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Simon Sinek on Great Leaders

What separates great leaders from bad ones? Listen up as the TED talker explains the difference.
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Simon Sinek is the optimistic sort, but he wants to see more compassionate leaders. 

"In the military, they give medals for people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may survive," he said during the Truly Human Leadership Q&A held in Brooklyn on Thursday and sponsored by Inc.. "In business, we give bonuses to people who sacrifice others." 

Sinek, whose TED Talk is among one of the most-viewed ever, fielded questions from army veterans and executives on how to foster a successful environment. He calls his solution "the circle of safety," where everyone feels secure. 

"In business there are forces--nothing personal--like dips in the market that dramatically reduce your potential for survival; technology that renders your business obsolete overnight; and people who steal your customers," he explained. 

Here, Sinek, whose book Leaders Eat Last is due in January, explains how leaders can go from so-so to great. 

How can business leaders establish their vision?

Go ask your closest friends to describe you and they'll say, "You're trust worthy, you're fun … Why are you asking me this?" Eventually, they'll give up and start to describe themselves: "All I know is I sit in the same room as you and feel inspired." When they start talking about the value you have in their lives, you'll get goosebumps. That emotional response, those goosebumps, that's your "why." If you do this in all aspects of your life, that's your vision. 

Do leaders have to sacrifice for their vision? If so, what should they be willing to give up? 

Great leaders are willing to sacrifice the numbers to save the people. Poor leaders sacrifice the people to save the numbers. When a family makes less money, they don't get rid of one of their children. They go from name brand Cheerios to generic Cheerios. Same idea: Make everyone a part of it and say, "Okay, guys we don't want to have layoffs so we all need to work together to find efficiencies." 

What makes some leaders fail and others succeed?

Leaders who fail are the ones who do it by themselves. Leaders who succeed are the ones who allow others to help them. Even leaders who achieved great success financially asked, "Would the company die if they died?" Or, "Would the employees feel so compelled to keep the company alive without them?" For most small business owners, the answer is that the company would stop because they haven't empowered anybody. Is that success? 

Given the recent setbacks suffered at Dell and Zynga, how can you tell when a leader has lost her vision? 

You can feel it. Zynga was horrible. Pincus believed he was God and treated people that way. Zynga could've been a place where employees rallied to keep it alive. They shut down the New York office, no one saw it coming, and it was a five minute conversation. As people were leaving, they destroyed their Zynga sweatshirts and things as symbolic of no longer belonging to the family.

Dell used to be a pioneer and have a great "why," but then they became a computer company. If you go to Dallas and roam from Dell's reception to cafeteria, you won't see anything on the walls. It feels like a horrible place to work. There's nothing that reminds them why they come to work other than, "Hit your numbers and sell more computers."

If you go to Southwest Airlines and go from the lobby to the cafeteria, on every corner of every hall you see their vision written and framed on the wall. In their cafeteria, the company store there is called the "Freedom Store." Every time you get something to eat, it reminds you that your job is to offer freedom. Just from walking from the lobby to the cafeteria you can see the difference between two companies--one with a vision and one without one.

So how can leaders who've lost their "why" get back on track?

If the company hasn't completely lost its "why" like Microsoft, where the culture is still to change the world, then all you need is a leader who believes in that vision to remind people of what it is and empower them to do it.

Microsoft would come alive in two minutes. The problem is Steve Ballmer cares more about appeasing people outside his circle of safety and is slowly whittling away the culture and creating draconian rules to the point where the most talented and brilliant people hired to work there are leaving. You're left with the insecure [employees] who check the box and do as they're told. Good luck with that.

What makes someone a bad leader?

Bad leaders believe they need to have all the answers. Bad leaders believe that they have to project control at all times. Bad leaders would rather celebrate their own successes than the success of their workers. In a nutshell, bad leaders think it's all about them, good leaders think it's all about others. It is not more complicated. One is selfish, one is service.

IMAGE: Staff Sgt. Torin Olsen / WestPointBand / Flickr.com
Last updated: Aug 19, 2013

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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