To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Simon Sinek ’95: Optimism and effective leadership

Simon Sinek ’95—a university alumnus who is known for a viral TEDx video—spoke with Brandeis students on entrepreneurship and how to create a constructive work environment. Throughout the event, Sinek spoke to the characteristics of corporations, organizations, individuals, workers and leaders which make them successful in the world today.

Sinek has captured the attention of millions throughout his career. One of his most notable accomplishments being his TED Talk on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” which became the third most viewed Ted Talk in the world with over 61 million views. His first book titled, “Start With Why”, published in 2009, sold over one million units. He is also the founder of a charity called “The Curve” which works with law enforcement officials throughout the United States to improve policing.

At this event, Brandeis students were able to directly ask Sinek about his opinions on entrepreneurship. Sinek led the conversation from his work with companies and entrepreneurs around the globe, to even his time at Brandeis, Sinek discussed what future entrepreneurs and motivated workers ought to prepare themselves for both as workers and as people.

When describing the way in which companies and corporations operate in today’s economy, Sinek discussed a shift in focus from employee and customer satisfaction to shareholder satisfaction. On this Sinek said, “there was a great disservice that was done to capitalism over the course of the eighties, nineties and two thousands and that disservice was perpetuated by leaders like Jack Welch. Basically what they did is they made business in America more about value to a shareholder, an external constituent over a customer or an employee. And remember, good old-fashioned Adam Smith capitalism, the kind of capitalism that made America great. The kind of capitalism that Thomas Jefferson studied. Thomas Jefferson owned all the volumes of ‘Wealth of Nations.’ That form of capitalism believed in competition as a means of producing a higher quality product. We now live in a world where that’s not really true.”

Sinek went on later in the discussion to dive into detail about misguided corporate practices that are currently exercised. He spoke in great length about “calling things what they are” for companies, which Sinek described as not hiding behind language which empowers leaders to make dangerous decisions. To exemplify this point Sinek mentioned a friend of his, “My friend Bob Chapman, who runs a company called Barry Way Miller, doesn’t even refer to head count. He refers to heart count. It’s very difficult to reduce a heart count right? And so language really matters when you’re navigating these things and if you call things for what they are you’ll find your ability to make better decisions go up.” Sinek made the point that when you “call things how they are” it includes an emotional element into decision making which makes your entrepreneurial judgements better.

However, the discussion also focused, in acute detail, on the qualities which make a leader and a team effective in the modern work environment. One of the first questions Sinek answered concerned the qualities of an optimistic leader. Sinek answered that, “when I think about the optimistic leader. They have to have vision, and vision is not like to build the best, most reliable or highest quality product—that’s not vision. My own vision, I imagine, is a world in which the vast majority of people wake up every single morning, inspired, feel safe wherever they are, and end the day fulfilled by the work that they do. Entrepreneurship comes in looking for the path that helps me move closer towards that vision. So, for me, an optimistic entrepreneur is someone with vision and looking for the best tools to advance that vision.”

Sinek continued in the event to then discuss what optimism in the workplace is. On which he said, “Optimism is the undying belief that the future is bright. And you can stand in darkness and you can wade through difficulty in mud and you can be honest about it. We are going through an incredibly difficult time. It is filled with uncertainty, and I am uncertain as well. But there’s one thing I know for sure. If we work together through these difficult times, 100 percent guaranteed, we will get through this, and we will come out of this stronger than we went in. Even if I don’t know how long we’re going to be in the darkness—that’s optimism.”

The conversation then shifted as students began to ask questions, one of which centered itself on how employees can become better workers and people. Sinek answered this question by raising the dichotomy of hard and soft skills. Sinek described hard skills as being those which help you in doing the work you are tasked with and soft skills being those that make you a personable coworker and friend. Sinek mentioned that one of the hardest soft skills for people to learn is how, “to have an uncomfortable conversation and learn to listen and understand someone’s point of view when you vehemently disagree with them. And sitting down trying to convince them is not listening—trying to understand and have empathy is listening. When two people with opposing points of view can find common ground, that’s where growth happens.” 

Sinek mentioned the importance of this skill in life as it is valuable to people in politics and business in instances when you have, “disagreements with people about what decision to make for the company. You know you’re gonna have this. You can have decisions about what to do with an underperforming employee. You know. What do we do?” In moments such as those, Sinek expressed, being able to use soft skills such as listening become very important.

As the conversation continued, team environments and performace came to the forefront of the discussion. Sinek espoused that teams need certain characteristics over others saying, “A team is not a group of people who work together. The team is a group of people who trust each other and just because you were assigned to work with somebody doesn’t mean you’re a team yet. You have to do the hard work of building a team and creating a team. And whether a leader is assigned, or whether a leader emerges, it doesn’t matter the rank. A leader recognizes that they have a responsibility to see those around them rise. It’s not about them in their glory.”

The discussion concluded with Sinek answering a question about what lessons he learned during his time at Brandeis University. On which he said, “one of the best lessons I learned at Brandeis, and one of the great things about Brandeis, is that it is a relatively small school. You have relatively small class sizes, and, more importantly, you have a very, very small student to teacher ratio. You know our classes are taught by professors, you go to Harvard and they’re going to be taught by teaching assitants because all of the good professors go to work with the graduate students, right? So, you get access to brilliant, brilliant people in small class sizes. This is amazing. This is a gift, and one of the things that I learned was that I am allowed to disagree with someone who has more degrees and more letters at the end of their name than I do. As long as I can make a constructive and respectful argument. Screaming and yelling is not the way I disagree. Telling somebody that they’re wrong is not the way I disagree, but mounting an argument in a respectful way is something I learned at Brandeis, so I would have the emotion to disagree. But I had to learn how to disagree in a constructive way and I am very grateful to Brandeis for giving me that.”

The event was hosted on Feb. 28 via Zoom with the discussion moderated by professor Philippe Wells of the International Business School (IBS). 


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