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Vision: Start With Why

Bob Milligan Published on 30 June 2015

I am a reader of business books. As I look around my office, I have two very long shelves of books on leadership, strategy, supervision, etc. Each book has added a point or two to my writing, speaking and consulting. The book I just finished, however, was different.

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek profoundly deepened my understanding of the power of vision and enables me to more clearly understand and better explain why vision is so powerful.

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This article is an integration of a book report on Start with Why into a discussion of the importance of vision. I use some of Sinek’s examples of companies we all know. I also apply the ideas to dairy farms.

Let’s start by asking a question: Think of one or more companies that have employees and customers extremely committed to the company and its vision. Why are they committed? Four examples, from the book and my experience, and their common visions are:

  • Apple: Challenge the status quo.
  • Southwest Airlines: “You are now free to move about the country.”
  • Disney: Provide good, clean fun.
  • Medtronic: Save lives.

What do the four visions have in common? The answer is that they do not describe what the company does; they describe why the company exists. This is not new to me or to you. What is new from this book is a deepened understanding of why “why” is so important.

Figure 1, referred to by the author as The Golden Circle, illustrates why the leaders of companies like those mentioned above are so incredibly rare and successful.

The golden circleAll businesses know what they do – products and services. Most are pretty good at how they do it – strategy and tactics. Only a few can truly inspire their employees and their customers by clearly articulating why they do what they do.

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Figure 2 enables us to understand why “why” is so important and powerful. When leaders talk about or explain what the farm or other business does, employees and customers process what is said in the part of the brain called the neocortex.

the brain and whyThe neocortex is responsible for rational and analytical thinking and language. The “what” is understood here, but it does not drive behaviour.

When leaders talk about and explain why they do things, their employees and customers process what is said in the limbic brain. This part of the brain is responsible for all of our feelings – trust, loyalty, commitment. As a result, the limbic brain is responsible for human behaviour and decision-making.

The “why” resonates in this part of the brain. Only when “why” is clearly articulated can employees experience the emotions that lead to commitment to the vision and passion for the success of the business. Only the “why” resonates where there will be an emotional reaction.

It seems pretty compelling that business owners and leaders should articulate why the business exists. Why, then, is it so rare? Again, we need to understand how the brain functions.

The limbic brain has no capacity for language. Language is solely in the neocortex. One result is that we human beings have trouble describing feelings. Try explaining to your spouse why you love her or him.

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Articulating vision – the business’s “why” – is difficult because the neocortex has difficulty verbalizing emotions that are in the limbic brain. This is why successful communication of the vision – the “why” – often requires the use of stories, symbols, logos and images.

A quote from Start with Why articulates the challenge for you, the owner/leader: “If the leader of the organization can’t clearly articulate why the organization exists in terms beyond its products or services, then how does he expect employees to know why to come to work?”

It is easy in thinking about vision to focus on what the business does – produce milk, grow crops, sell milking equipment. It is much more difficult to articulate the “why.” Where, then, does the “why” for a farm or other business come from?

The author argues that “why” comes from the founder. It is the reason the founder took the risk and endured the hard work to start the business. Think about the history of your farm or agribusiness. Why was it started?

I expect that “why” is still present today. It needs to be clarified and articulated so all of the workforce, trusted advisers and customers understand it and can become passionate about sustaining your business.

Sinek argues convincingly that the greatest challenge for every business leader is to pass that vision – the “why” – to his or her successor. He gives several examples where businesses have struggled because the leader failed in continuing the “why” to the next generation of leaders.

  • Steve Jobs had to return to Apple to reinstill the “why” in the business.

  • Sam Walton’s vision was not about low prices; it was to serve people. He did not, however, pass that vision on, and Walmart changed dramatically after his death.

What does what we have learned from Start with Why mean for your farm or agribusiness? My reading of this enlightening book suggests the following:

  • Think about and reflect on why your business exists. Many of you own farms and other businesses that go back several generations. Delineate the powerful “why” that has sustained the business over those decades and even centuries.

  • An even greater challenge is to find ways to articulate this “why” to your family, especially your children, and to your employees, trusted advisers and customers. What stories and symbols, perhaps going back generations, can be used to convey the “why”?

  • And the greatest challenge is to make the “why” the cornerstone of transitioning your farm or other business to the next generation or the next leader.  PD

Dr. Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant, Dairy Strategies, LLC and Professor Emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University. This article first appeared in Dr. Milligan’s e-newsletter LearningEdge Monthly, October 2014. To subscribe to the e-newsletter or reach Dr. Milligan, email or call (651) 647-0495.

Bob Milligan
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