Leadership is about Love (Simon Sinek)

Simon Sinek giving a Ted Talk on the power of love in leadership
British-American Author Simon Sinek giving a leadership talk in Vancouver, Canada, in March of 2014

I have penned a handful of articles on love because I think it is an important topic. And I’m not talking about a romantic sentimental kind of love, although that’s a good thing in and of itself. I’m talking about the kind of love that empowers people to accept themselves, to accept others, and to fulfill the golden rule–do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is what the world needs more of, and I will gladly promote it any day of the week. I’m also not alone. British-born Simon Sinek is a motivational speaker and leadership expert. He is the author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action, a New York Times best-seller. In it, he makes the case that of the two main ways to influence human behavior–manipulation and inspiration–inspiration is the more powerful, more sustainable option. I’ve transcribed a YouTube clip in which Simon Sinek talks about the importance of love to successful leadership and successful living Love is a process, he argues, but it works every single time.



Do you love your wife? “Yes.” Prove it. What’s the metric? Give me the number that helps me know. Because when you met her, you didn’t love her, right? Now you love her. Tell me the day the love happened. It’s an impossible question. But it’s not that it doesn’t exist. It’s that it’s much easier to prove over time. Leadership is the same thing. It’s about transitions. If you were to go to the gym, it’s like exercise, right. If you go to the gym and you work out and you come back and you look in the mirror you will see. . . nothing. And if you go to the gym the next day and you come back and you look in the mirror, you will see. . . nothing. Clearly there’s no results, can’t be measured, it must not be effective. So we quit.

Or if you fundamentally believe that this is the right course of action and you stick with it like in a relationship. I bought her flowers and I wished her happy birthday, and she doesn’t love me. Clearly I will give up. That’s not what happens. If you believe there is something there, you commit yourself to an act of service, to the regime, to the exercise. You can screw it up, you can each chocolate cake one day, you can skip a day or two. It allows for that, but if you stick with it consistently–I’m not exactly sure what day–but I know you’ll start getting into shape.

And the same with the relationship. It’s not about the events. It’s not about intensity. It’s about consistency, right? You go to the dentist twice a year, your teeth will fall out. You have to brush your teeth every day for two minutes. What does brushing your teeth every day for two minutes do? Nothing. Unless you do it every day twice a day for two minutes. It’s the consistency. Going to the gym for nine hours does not get you into shape. Working out every day for 20 minutes gets you into shape.

So the problem is we treat leadership with intensity. We have a 2-day off-site, we invite a bunch of speakers, we give everybody a certificate. [claps] You’re a leader. Those things are like going to the dentist. They’re very important. They’re good for reminding us or getting us back on track, learning new lessons. But it’s the daily practice of all the monotonous little boring things like brushing your teeth that matter the most.

She didn’t fall in love with you because you remembered her birthday and bought her flowers on Valentine’s Day. She fell in love with you because when you woke up in the morning you said good morning to her before you checked your phone. She fell in love with you because when you went to the fridge to get yourself a drink, you got her one without even asking. She fell in love with you because when you had an amazing day at work, and when she came home and had a terrible day at work, you didn’t say “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but let me tell you about my day.” You sat and listened to her awful day, and you didn’t say a thing about your amazing day.

This is why she fell in love with you. I can’t tell you exactly what day, and it was no particular thing you did, it was the accumulation of all those little things that she woke up one day. It’s as if she pressed a button, she goes “I love him.” Leadership is exactly the same. There’s no event. There’s no thing I can tell you you have to do that your people will trust you. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s an accumulation of lots and lots of little things that any one by themselves is innocuous and useless. Literally pointless by themselves. People will look at little things that are good leadership practices and will say “That won’t work.” And you’re absolutely right. But if you do it consistently, and you do it in combination with lots of other little things like saying good morning to someone. Looking them in the eye.

My friend George who’s a 3-star general in the Marine Corp. He says his test for leadership–and I love this–his test for a good leader, if you ask somebody how their day is going, you actually care about the answer. The number of times we’re walking to a meeting, we’re rushing, we go “How are you?” “Not Good.” “I got to get to you later, God, I’m late for a meeting.” If you asked the question, you were standing there and you’re listening to the answer. It’s those little innocuous things that you do over and over and over and over that people will say “I love my job.” Not “I like my job.” I like my job means “Yeah the challenge is great, they pay me well, I like the people.” I love my job means “I don’t want to work anywhere else. I don’t care how much somebody else is willing to pay me. I’m devoted to the people here. And I care desperately about the people here as if they’re my family.”

In business, we have colleagues and coworkers. In the military, they have brothers and sisters. That’s how they think of each other. If you really have a strong corporate culture, the people will think of each other like brothers and sisters. “It’s like a family [sentimental voice].” No– brothers and sisters. Deep love. Fight, but the love doesn’t go a way. Bicker, the love doesn’t go away. And I’ll fight with my sister, but if you threaten my sister, you’re going to have to deal with me. We’ll fight internally. We’ll bicker with each other. But nobody’s going to hurt each other. And if anything from the outside shows up, you’re looking at a unified front.

Now how do you create brothers and sisters out of strangers? Common beliefs. Common values. Parents, in other words, executives who care about their children’s success. Who care to raise their children, teach them skills, discipline them when necessary. Help them build their self-confidence, so that they can go on and achieve something more than you could have ever imagined achieving for yourself. That’s leadership. An absolute love and devotion for the people who have committed their lives to this enterprise. It’s a human thing. Just as you know how your body feels after a good workout and you know how your body feels after a big greasy meal. You know that one is good for you and one is not, despite what it may taste like.

And that’s the problem with short-term gains. They feel really good in the short term. We’re highly, highly trained social animals. We’re highly adapted social animals. We can feel social awkwardness. And we can feel when things are going well. You can sense it. You say you have this sense of laughter around me. We don’t walk around with blinders. Like I said, we’re made to do this, that’s why we can assess if somebody’s trustworthy or not. That’s why we keep our walls up–“Yeah, his results are great, but I wouldn’t trust him.” As opposed to letting down your guard, “I trust her with anything. I trust her with my kids, my money, anything.” So we’re highly attuned animals, so we’re good at sensing it.

But I will say there is a caveat to your metric of laughter, which is a decent one. It’s that scale breaks things in human beings. I’ve said before, we’re not made for populations bigger than about 150-ish. It’s called Dunbar’s number. Robert Dunbar, a professor from Cambridge University, theorized that we can’t maintain more than about 150 close relationships. The way he defined a close relationship is if you’re at a bar with a bunch of friends and somebody comes in, would you ask that person to join you or not. It’s about 150 that we would ask them to come join us. And if you think about the reason that actually makes perfect sense. Which is two limiting factors–one is time. If you only gave 2 minutes to every person you know, you’d make no close friends. And the other one is memory. You just can’t just remember everybody.

And so this is where leadership becomes very interesting because if you have a company that has a lot of people–5,6, 7, 800, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 people–clearly you can’t know everyone. And clearly as a CEO, you’re like “I care about every single one of my people.” You don’t even know–some of the people who work for you are bastards. You don’t care about them. So it’s a nonsense statement.

But what you can say is I desperately care about the people whose names I know and whose faces I recognize. And I care desperately about my leadership, and I instill in them every day that I will give them the tools and I will take care of them with one purpose, and one purpose only: that they will take care of the people in their charge. And I want those people to take care of the people, and instill in them that they take care of the people in their charge.

By the time you get down to the masses where the actual thousand exist–because the seniors are like 20–where the real thousand exists. They feel–about 150 of them can look to one of their direct leaders, one of their direct managers, and say that person cares about me. That’s our boss. That’s my boss. That’s my leader. Not the leader. [Not] it’s the CEO. It’s my manager. My boss. My leader.

Sometimes you get fired. Sometimes you get in trouble. Sometimes you’ll lose your job and the next guy will get all the credit. It’s all true. The courage to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming pressure–only the best leaders have that courage. Only the best leaders. And here’s the folly, courage is not some deep internal fortitude. You don’t dig down deep and find the courage. It just doesn’t exist. Courage is external. Our courage comes from the support we feel from others.

In other words, when someone–when you feel that someone has your back. When you know that the day that you admit you can’t do it, someone will be there and say “I got you. You can do this.” That’s what gives you the courage to do the difficult thing. It’s not going off to an ashram [monastery] by yourself somewhere for four weeks and coming back and finding the courage. It’s not what happens. It’s the relationships that we foster. It’s the people around us that love us and care about us and believe in us.

And when we have those relationships, we will find the courage to do the right thing. And when you act with courage that, in turn, will inspire those in your organization to also act with courage. In other words, it’s still an external thing. That’s what inspiration is. I’m inspired to follow your example. Those relationships that we foster over the course of a lifetime will not only make us into the leaders we need to be and hope we can be, but they’ll often save your life. They’ll save you from depression. They’ll save you from giving up. They’ll save you from any negative feelings about your own capabilities, your own future. When someone just says “I love you.”


  1. […] Understanding awakens us to the human condition. It is the recognition that people are largely a product of their environment. Living well is as much about working with what you have as it is putting yourself in the right environment to thrive. It’s when the environment is right that an individual can reach their full potential. And there’s no telling how low an individual will go when the environment is not right. American-British author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek, captured in a talk on leadership and love just how critical the environment is to human well-being. Courage was the topic of conversation, an attribute people typically think has more to do with the individual than anything else. See the excerpt below from Leadership is about Love. […]

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