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What if Simon Sinek was Wrong?

My grandpa owned a bakery most of his adult life. I remember visiting my grandparents on the weekend and waking up to huge trays of fresh donuts. Their home was definitely filled with an abundance of love, humor, and donuts. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those donuts held a simple truth that has changed the way I look at innovation…but more on that in a minute.

In 2009, Simon Sinek delivered a thought-provoking TED Talk titled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Most school leaders are familiar with his message, but if you’re not one of the 30 million people who has already viewed his talk I suggest you check it out HERE. During the talk, Sinek steps up to a sheet of white chart paper and eloquently scrawls out several circles placing the word “why” in the center as the starting point. The message is simple yet profound; start with “why.”

I feel like I need to share a disclaimer before I go on. Simon Sinek has positively impacted my work and thinking as a leader more than a single blog post could convey. In fact, his TED Talk has helped me be more intentional as a school leader. Starting with “why” is A LOT better than how I was starting things when I first became an educator. (I’d like to apologize again to my first group of 2nd graders for that!)

However, starting with “why” doesn’t always work for everyone. And since everyone matters, I wanted to examine where things were breaking down. I’m learning that you cannot separate the people from the purpose. I’m learning that standing in the center of Sinek's circles isn’t just a reason. It is a living, breathing, human being with a heart, talents, and multitude of life experiences.

When we leap to explaining our “why” we actually miss an opportunity to value the “who” and all the strengths that person possesses. When we start with “why” we might miss an opportunity to build trust and create traction. We all know a vision is just a vision without traction.

The best way to achieve traction is to account for that perfectly human pulse at the center of those golden circles. It’s not a “why.” It’s actually you…or me…or that co-worker who many people have labeled as a resister because somewhere somebody started with “why” instead of “hi.”

I’m a little bit embarrassed by the simplicity of what I’m about to do, but I think my grandpa would be proud. I took the basic circles that Simon Sinek started with and moved the “why” (a.k.a. whatever meaningful change, vision, or purpose you aspire to lead) to the outside. You probably noticed that I added some sprinkles and frosting too.

When we put a person in the center of the circle (or donut) we honor their present reality and potential contributions. Ideally, this involves an understanding of the person’s strengths and collaborative conversations about what our “why” is and how we can contribute to the realization of a shared vision. It’s a strengths-based approach to leadership that humanizes the complex process of change.

The Donut Theorem is actually a little deeper than I’ve let on to. Let’s dive inside the donuts using some X-Ray vision. (Being the grandson of a baker gives me unique credibility into this next truth.) Sometimes the middle of a donut is filled with jelly, and other times the middle is actually a hole.

Leaders who start with a person’s strengths and move through the unknown to meaningful change are starting in the middle of a jelly-filled donut. When they start the change process in the middle of a person's or team’s strengths, they immediately amplify the abilities of those they serve. Knowing your own strengths and then “flexing” those is another example of starting in the jelly-filling. However, there will be times when we’re thrust into unknown situations or new learning is required and this is a completely different kind of donut.

When we are tasked with doing something unfamiliar or challenging it can feel difficult to gain traction. In these instances, leaders should help others to somehow seek their strengths (or find the frosting) to move towards meaningful change. Connect the new and unfamiliar learning to something a person is proficient in whenever possible. We still start from the middle of the donut (which is actually a void), but we successfully learn and grow by leaning into our strengths. In doing so, we achieve meaningful change and the purpose is internalized during the process.

The Donut Theorem is a strengths-based and relational approach to leadership and learning. Whether we are talking about adult learners or our students, most people have a basic need to understand that they are valued and possess unique gifts that can help a team or school move forward. Starting with “why” can feel like an external mandate even when the “why” is clear and compelling to most. Putting forth a “why” without regard to the “who” in front of us can also have the unintended impact of feeling exclusionary to some.

Imagine you are in a staff meeting or professional development session, and consider this all-too-common leadership scenario:

Leader: Passionately presents a new “why” to an audience, and proceeds to unpack the "how and what."

Some in the Audience: Respond in earnest by wondering, “How can I contribute?”

Others in the Audience: Respond with anxiety or feelings of being overwhelmed, “Is this an affront on my teaching style?” or “How will I possibly do that [insert new “how and what” here].

Leader: Reflects after the meeting and wonders how anyone could possibly resist the “why” and vision?

If we fail to see how our people’s passions, strengths, and talents align with the “why” we may not move. We diminish organizational potential when we prioritize a reason over a relationship. My advice is simple.

Try implementing the practice of starting with “who” by seeing the strengths and talent in front of you. Get to know the hearts and minds you serve, and never underestimate how they might make a positive impact if given a real chance. By conducting a humble assessment of individual and organizational strengths, your team will pursue the vision with purpose and fervor. That’s how the “why” becomes personal and it’s also how meaningful change can be sustained.

PS. For my friends with food allergies, I’ve attached a gluten-free version of the Donut Theorem below. Whichever version you prefer, be sure to start in the middle with the people who will be making the difference. Seek their strengths and they will return the flavor.



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