Simon Sinek says great leaders and organizations start with why. While a popular talk, a simple exercise reveals few organizations actually start with why.
In his 2009 TED Talk, Simon Sinek made a simple but powerful point. Start with why. He pictured three overlaying circles with the innermost one asking “Why?” He used examples such as Apple and the Wright brothers to explain how great individuals and organizations start with why. They then move outward to how and what.
Sinek’s talk is popular (almost 40,000,000 views) but he notes that few individuals and organizations actually start with why. Brain research reveals why.
If you look at a cross-section of the human brain from the top down, it looks like a circle with three rings. The neocortex is the outer ring, the what. It’s the rational and analytical part of our brain that expresses itself in language. The middle two rings represent the limbic part of the brain, which Sinek says “is responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, and has no capacity for language.” The outer of the two rings is where we imagine how. In the innermost ring we imagine why.
And that’s why few organizations start with why. Most start with words, like mission statements. But there is no empirical evidence that language drives behavior. The metaphor behind a word makes it meaning-full, driving how we behave.
Effective leaders and organizations recognize this. They start with pictures, the innermost ring that drives behavior but has no capacity for language. They recognize that starting with why can only be conveyed in images. Start with images, start with why.
This is ancient wisdom. “The soul never thinks without a picture,” wrote Aristotle. All language is metaphorical. Metaphor is what links language to life. Image precedes words.
Images also unmask our true why. Simple drawing exercises prove this. Drawing tends to be unedited. Years ago, I consulted for a company where I led drawing exercises. I remember an employee who was confident he embraced the company’s mission but drew Beyoncé on his boat to picture why he worked there. Not exactly the company’s why—but we uncovered his true why.
Drawing exercises also reveal how our modern left-brain culture has radically altered our brain circuitry. The brain is contralateral (the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body and vice versa). Left-brained people ought to be right-brained (and most assume they are) but in fact, drawing exercises reveal almost all left-brained Americans operate out of their left hemisphere. Startling—until we remember culture is king.
That’s why companies with innovative cultures often rely on Betty Edward’s 1989 book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Left-brain drawings give us organizational charts—what and how. Right brain drawings go deeper, to the innermost circle of why. Ambidextrous organizations rely on both but look to right-brain leaders to help left-brain leaders draw pictures that get to why.
I love working with businesses but I love the church and wish more churches would start with why. Few do. Doubt it? Try these drawing exercises.
Draw why we exist. Did you draw a circle? We exist because the Triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit, historically depicted as a circle—is love. This spherical image is all over historic Annapolis, on every historic church. Love is the enjoyment of the circle and the desire to expand it. We exist to expand the circle of love. Did you draw a circle?
Second, draw how this happens. God seeks to expand the circle of love by having the Son marry a bride—humankind. The church is the bride of Christ. Did you draw a bride? There are many metaphors for the church, but few modern churches draw what is considered to be the historically central metaphor for God’s church—the bride.
It’s difficult to pursue human flourishing when we don’t start with why. This requires starting with image, metaphor. Mark Johnson, a professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon, writes how the history of the modern Western world is, “for the most part, one long development of the dismissal of metaphor.” This world arose in the Enlightenment, and Enlightenment thinkers considered images to be imprecise and unreliable. Everything had to be written out in perfectly clear and unambiguous language. Such language does not exist.
In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell writes, “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations.” I wish more businesses and churches heeded Orwell. The key is starting in the innermost ring of why. That requires a right-brain sage or prophet who’s good at drawing out the real why by having us draw pictures.
 Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 187.
 Joseph Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (University of Chicago Press), 2004.