If you’ve been to any leadership training seminar in the past two years, you’ve almost certainly been exposed to Simon Sinek’s minimalist TED Talk, “How good leaders inspire action.” The gist is this: Good leaders start their projects by thinking of their purpose for acting, or “why,” before they consider what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. For instance, Sinek claims Apple is successful because its purpose — challenging the status quo — precedes what it intends to make or how it intends to make them.
I think Sinek intended his talk to empower his audience, but it primarily just freaked me out. It implies that if an entity holds a certain central aura we find appealing, we will go along with whatever it produces, even if that output is intrinsically bad. This is especially relevant to entertainment, which has the ability to color our entire perception of the world. Think about it this way: Let’s say that a television channel, like HBO, has a “why” that we trust and draws us in. Perhaps that “why” is to supply well-written dramatic television shows with artistic merit. If we accept this “why,” by Sinek’s logic, we will be inclined to think well of all of HBO’s dramas, at least for a while, even if one is a total piece of crap. If we didn’t buy into HBO’s “why,” we would evaluate each individual show critically, allowing us to avoid wasting hours of our lives watching two seasons of some shitty show just because it was on HBO. In fact, highly respected television critics may be touting inflated reviews of shows right now just because of the branding and “whys” of the people and networks attached to them.
Now, I personally don’t like being manipulated in this way, but others might not care much. Unfortunately, there’s more than time spent watching television on the line here. This became apparent to me when I began following the Donald Trump campaign saga. The numbers didn’t make sense — Trump began leading in the polls, and no matter how offensive he became, his support stayed steady. Though this dumbfounded me for weeks, it started to make sense after (another) screening of Sinek’s talk. Trump captivated his supporters through his “why”: “Politicians suck.” And once exhausted, cynical citizens bought into that fairly innocuous message, they were attached to Trump, regardless of how awful his policies and words seemed to sound to those who hadn’t jumped on board. I think this means Trump strategy is good, but it also means that if my theory’s correct, his supporters have abandoned their ability to stay open-minded and critically evaluate candidates based on their policies and potential to become strong leaders.
In general, I think these examples speak to both the power of Sinek’s hypothesis and the dangers surrounding it in regards to entertainment. On the one hand, establishing and maintaining a strong “why” allows the producers of entertainment to gain consumer loyalty and maintain it even if they put out a few flops. On the other hand, if we as consumers buy into “whys” too quickly, we may risk abandoning our ability to tell shit from gold. Though Sinek is correct that “why” may be powerful, how and what matter too.