Why Every Company is "On a Mission to..."
Companies might promise to be a "force for good" or "start with why," but often, those high-minded missions are excuses for bad behavior.
It seems like every business today is “on a mission.”
Here’s how one company describes its mission:
“We aim to build a better world — helping people live better and renew the planet while building thriving, resilient communities. For us, this means working to create opportunity, build a more sustainable future, advance diversity, equity and inclusion and bring communities closer together.”
Care to guess what company that statement belongs to?
It’s not REI. Not Etsy. Not Everlane or Allbirds. Not The North Face or Patagonia.
Of course, it could really be any company’s statement of purpose or mission because it’s vapid and meaningless. Walmart’s purpose, its reason for existing, is to generate a profit. The Walton family and the company’s non-majority shareholders expect to see the capital they’ve invested grow. And that’s fine.
So why dress it up in the “Live Better” finery? Because obscuring the profit motive makes it easier to ask more of every person involved—from employees at company headquarters to store greeters to local community leaders to customers. Companies have to be more than profit-driven enterprises to justify the imbalance between those who create value and those who profit from it.
I mean, even the term “profit-driven enterprise” sounds a bit derogatory, right?
Corporate mission statements have been trending in this direction since the 1970s.
Peter Drucker spelled out the importance of a business’s mission and purpose in his 1974 book, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, and Practices. He argued that a ‘business enterprise’—that is, a durable business that scales beyond its original founder—must operate with a clear ‘theory of business.’ He explains how the founder of American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), Theodore Vail, clearly defined the theory of the company as “service.” Vail recognized that the telephone system was a natural monopoly and, therefore, a prime candidate for nationalization. If the government took over his company, he’d lose out on the fortune he imagined making from it. But if he could focus on maintaining “customer satisfaction,” then he could maintain his for-profit endeavor.
Drucker writes, “This realization meant radical innovations in business policy. It meant constant indoctrination in dedication to service for all employees, and public relations which stressed service.” He then closes this example by arguing that:
“The United States would hardly have gone through the New Deal period without a serious attempt at telephone nationalization but for the careful analysis of its own business that the Telephone Company made between 1905 and 1915.”
Plain as day, we can see how a business’s “purpose” can be utilized to circumvent the public good.
Who benefits from phone service being provided by private companies? The shareholders of those companies. Or, to bring this example into the 21st century, who benefits from internet service being provided by private companies? The shareholders of those companies. It’s certainly not the rural and urban communities that lack appropriate access to the internet because serving them simply isn’t profitable.
A company’s mission can cover all sorts of imbalances that serve the bottom line. What’s more, that mission can be a source of “indoctrination,” to use Drucker’s term, and recruit the very people getting a raw deal—employees and customers—to the cause.
The reliance on mission and purpose has only grown in the almost 50 years since Drucker’s Management hit shelves. Every effort is made to make a company feel like a “family,” to exist to “do good.” The stark hierarchy of industrial capitalist enterprise has made way for a flatter, more flexible, collaborative capitalist enterprise. Managers don’t make employees do their bidding. Employees learn to think like the boss. This is, in part, what sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call “the new spirit of capitalism.”
In their 1999 book of the same name, they write:
“All the self-organized, creative beings on whom performance now depends must be guided in a direction decided only by a few, but without reverting to the ‘hierarchical bosses’ of yesteryear. This is where leaders and their visions come into the picture. Vision has the same virtues as the spirit of capitalism, for it guarantees the workers’ commitment without recourse to compulsion, by making everyone’s work meaningful.”
This vision, they argue, is the responsibility of “the leader” who “knows how to communicate it and get others to support it.” Boltanski and Chiapello describe this as “the weakest link” in today’s world of business and work because “everything rests on the shoulders of an exceptional being.” Where do you find these inspiring leaders? Can someone be trained to become this style of leader? By what means can they be reproduced by a firm?
“Lucky” enough for us all, a book came along 10 years later with the answers.
Simon Sinek’s Start With Why was one of the first business books I ever read. It’s also consistently listed in the top 5 books on lists with titles like “Best Leadership Books of All Time.” Sinek’s 2014 TEDx talk on the book’s central premise has over 61 million views.
If you’re taking a basic online business course, there’s an exceptionally high chance that you’ll be asked to define your why. Sinek didn’t invent this idea, as we’ve already seen. But his take has become an integral part of how people talk about business.
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What does it mean to ‘start with why?’
In Start with Why, Sinek argues that great leaders leverage a core mission to inspire people to action. “There are leaders and there are those who lead,” he declares. Those who lead focus on something bigger than profit or market share. Those who lead start with why—the principle they build their organization or movement around. Sinek contrasts these people who lead with the executives who manage based on short-term thinking, half measures, and bad assumptions.
Once a leader has settled on their why, they can define how the organization or movement will go about its work. They decide on business strategy and operational principles using the higher purpose of the company as their guide. Finally, the leader channels the why and the how into what the organization or movement does. Only after the higher purpose and strategy have been settled can a great company turn to what it produces. The product is almost an afterthought (“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”) Sinek calls this Why-How-What framework the Golden Circle.
Sinek cites Apple, the ur-example of “doing business differently,” to illustrate how the Start With Why
framework process method ideology works:
“[Steve] Jobs gave people a filter, a context, a higher purpose around which to innovate: find existing status-quo industries, those in which companies fight to protect their old-fashioned business models, and challenge them. This is WHY [sic] Apple was founded, it is what Jobs and Wozniak did when they started the company, and it is what Apple's people and products have done ever since.”
It’s worth noting that, in the book’s introduction, Sinek offers a different take on why Apple was founded—suggesting that it was Wozniak’s desire to put power in the hands of the “little man” so he could “take on a corporation.”
Sinek’s use of the phrase “a higher purpose” is telling here. It echoes Drucker’s “indoctrination” and Boltanski and Chiapello’s “spirit of capitalism.” Central to Sinek’s premise is the idea that inspired, mission-driven workers will be more creative and innovative than people simply doing their job. And at least as far as pop organizational psychology is concerned, that is true. But my beef with “inspiring” workers to action is the predictable consequences that workers experience in this paradigm. Before I outline those consequences, let’s examine why working for a why-oriented company is so appealing.
Why is starting with why so appealing?
Some have called our contemporary social context a “crisis of belonging.”1 Political polarization, addictive devices and apps, the pandemic, suburbanization, wealth inequality, lack of trust in institutions—all of these (and more) contribute to feeling disconnected from one another. We want to belong to something bigger than ourselves. It seems to be a core part of the human experience.
What can bridge the gap? Work, of course.
Today, the job site takes on an almost-sacred character. We talk about family, passion, purpose, and duty—concepts that were once more associated with religious practice and belonging to a congregation or culture. It’s no coincidence that one of Sinek’s three foundational examples of the Start with Why ideology is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—both a minister and an instigator of social change.
Sinek invokes the example of the Civil Rights movement in 4 different ways throughout the book. A text search reveals “Martin Luther King, Jr” appears 18 times, while “Dr. King” appears 29 times. Sinek’s choice to put King’s legacy next to the successes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Walt Disney is key. Starting with why is equally applicable, Sinek argues, to commercial enterprise and political struggle.
This has the effect of coloring commercial success with the nobleness of virtuous movement-building.
Sinek invokes the new spirit of capitalism by equivocating the power of strategic social change with the business strategies of billionaires. What makes our current spirit of capitalism different than what came before? First, Bolktanski and Chiapello describe 3 distinct spirits of capitalism. Each is a story—a cultural narrative—about how the individual worker benefits from labor under capitalism. These stories are necessary, explain Boltanski and Chiapello, because otherwise, workers wouldn’t subscribe to the raw deal employers offer them.
The first spirit of capitalism relied on religious conviction to equate hard work in the pursuit of a vocation to living a godly life. This is the paradigm that Max Weber described as a product of the Protestant work ethic. The second spirit of capitalism popularized the Organization Man—the image of a man who got a job, climbed the ranks, and didn’t have to worry about his status in society as long as he stayed loyal to the firm. The second story leverages the desire for stability. Finally, the third spirit of capitalism—catalyzed by the effort to break the labor movement and accelerated by computerization—relies on purpose, passion, and mission to inspire people to work for diminishing benefits.
Sinek imagines a world where the vast majority of workers could love their jobs because the leaders they work for inspire them with a higher purpose:
“If more knew how to build organizations that inspire, we could live in a world … in which over 80 percent of people loved their jobs. People who love going to work are more productive and more creative. They go home happier and have happier families. They treat their colleagues and clients and customers better. Inspired employees make for stronger companies and stronger economies.”
This imagined future of work is appealing. But Sinek doesn’t seem to ask some key questions: is it possible to love your job if it doesn’t provide for your material needs? Is loving your work the same as loving your job? And perhaps most importantly, do great leaders inspire people to work for workers’ own benefit or for leaders’ benefit?
How does starting with why set the stage for disappointment?
I encountered Start With Why in its first year of publication—which was also my first year of building something I eventually realized was a business. It was exactly what I wanted to hear at the time. Start With Why gave me a story to tell about not only the business I had inadvertently founded but also a story about the “greatness” of what I was doing. I desperately wanted to believe I hadn’t fallen into a rote and meaningless life after college. “Starting with why” gave me a way to attach greater meaning and a higher purpose to every decision I made.
But even before I was a small-scale entrepreneur, I was a worker in the thrall of my employers’ missions. I worked hard, sacrificed pay, and neglected time off in order to uphold the higher purpose and moral status of these companies. I wore their values on my sleeve—even when corporate policies seemed to transgress them. I was more concerned about the company’s success than my own, and when that commitment wavered, I felt guilty.
The Why-based organization can take full advantage of its moral status in relation to the labor it employs.
Sinek writes, “Those who are inspired are willing to pay a premium or endure inconvenience, even personal suffering.” Again, Sinek gestures toward political struggle. But in application, Why-based companies rely on workers accepting lower wages, inconvenient demands, and yes, even personal suffering to extract growing levels of surplus value. Sinek claims that this labor relation inspires people to “act for the good of the whole not because they have to, but because they want to.” Workers become willing to take one for the team, put in longer hours, or accept a loss of benefits because they’re contributing to something greater than themselves.
“Dreams of individual accomplishment and desires to contribute to the common good,” explains social theorist Kathi Weeks, “become firmly attached to waged work, where they can be hijacked to rather different ends: to produce neither individual riches nor social wealth, but privately appropriated surplus value.” There were no amount of promotions I could earn or accolades I could win in any of my early jobs that could have provided long-term satisfaction. My work was entrenched in the logic of shareholder value rather than in a legitimate exercise of my own agency. What I didn’t see at the time was how perfectly my attitude fit into the framework of vocational awe.2
Sinek instructs leaders to hire for attitude rather than skills.
The attitude to hire for is, fittingly, the dreams of accomplishment and contribution that Weeks described and I lived. The more a worker is invested in that motivation, the more easily they’re assimilated into the goals of the firm. It’s this transformation of motivation—from being motivated by one’s own needs to being motivated by a company’s why—that rests at the heart of today’s work passion paradigm. Offering a why, a mission that workers can (and should) get behind, is a prime way to align the workers’ values and desires to the needs of the company. Presenting that why through the lens of depoliticized social progress makes the company’s needs even more compelling.
By leveraging examples of social change movements (e.g., the Civil Rights movement), Sinek (intentionally or not) encourages leaders to see their teams as true believers and encourages team members to see their leaders as beacons of higher purpose. The social and political subjectivities of work become unmistakable as the worker learns to equate their job with belonging to a social or political movement.
No company can live up to the hype.
Companies are not social movements. That’s not to say that some companies do meaningfully contribute to new social understandings that help move the needle on change. However, the logics of capitalism and the financial structures of companies will always be at odds with the political struggle of workers.
But is it good for business?
So far, I’ve discussed why starting with why is so appealing—both to leaders and to workers—and how companies that claim to start with why set the stage for disappointment. But now I want to turn toward the other theme of the text: starting with why as an effective brand and marketing strategy.
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” declares Sinek. I’m happy to admit this is a well-constructed message. It’s memorable, surprising, and easy to repeat. But is it true?
Let me add some nuance here. I won’t deny that I’m more likely to buy from a company that claims values similar to my own. If what I want to buy is available from both REI and Amazon, I will buy it from REI every time. So if we’re talking why as an indicator of preference, I’ll accept the argument. But if what we’re really talking about is “inspiring” or “motivating” someone to make a purchase they might not have otherwise made, I just don’t think this holds water.
To keep with his Golden Circle framework, Sinek demonstrates how a company might conceptualize its messaging—why, how, and then what. First, he provides an example of conventional messaging, imagining what a mediocre marketer at Apple might come up with:
“We make great computers. They're beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. Wanna buy one?”
And then, Sinek explains how to construct the message using the Golden Circle and delivers his mic-drop, insert-applause-here sales pitch for an Apple computer:
“Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.
The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.
And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”
I’ll admit I got caught up in the delivery of this line in both the audiobook and TED talk when I first heard it. “Heck yeah, I wanna buy one!”
Reading it now, though, I’m underwhelmed. Maybe even a bit insulted. I don’t buy Apple computers because they “believe in challenging the status quo” or “thinking differently.” I buy them because it’s super convenient to have devices that work together (most of the time) seamlessly. And I prefer their minimal aesthetic to maximalist (read: preloaded junk software) PCs or Android devices. Sure, that may be the product of thinking differently—but just how different is it 25 years after the first iMac was released?
Truly, what I buy is the damn computer.
Starting with why is no substitute for a great product.
I’m sure the myriad direct-to-consumer companies founded in the last decade will attest to this. They used the Start With Why playbook to build brands that appealed to people on emotional and social levels. They relied on “inspiring” customers to buy and on workers sacrificing payscale for stock. And while venture capital was flowing, they did okay. But how many of these companies are self-sufficient today? How many will be around in the next 10 years as anything more than a brand that some megacorporation absorbed into its portfolio? The “DTC” brands lining the shelves at Target can tell us a lot. These companies started with why and seem to be ending with meh.
I see this same problem with people entering the coaching, consulting, and online education space, not to mention influencers and creators. They’ve picked up the message to lead with their whys but don’t have a clear and specific product to offer. They fail to generate compelling value propositions. They truly don’t know why someone would buy their product outside of why they created the product in the first place. The answer to ‘Why should I hire you?’ is often ‘I’m on a mission to…’
Whether DTC brands, micro business owners and creators, or established firms, messaging around a why typically indicates that the product for sale is a solution in need of a problem. The why becomes an inroad to naming a desire or challenge that the prospective customer doesn’t have. Just as the why transforms a worker’s goals into a company’s goals, the why of messaging transforms the customer’s desire into the company’s desire. The company, the worker, and the consumer are connected via the why—but it’s only the company that really benefits.
What is the alternative?
I’d rather a company have a socially positive vision and set of values that guide how it operates in the world than not. But Sinek’s Start with Why ideology is a commercial appropriation of political struggle, social progress, and workers’ genuine desire to be part of something that matters for the benefit of the already powerful.
An alternative approach must start with the what—the opposite of Sinek’s formulation.
A business that professes to do good today must begin with a product that solves a demonstrated need or meets a demonstrated desire. That product must have a clear and compelling value proposition—and its design must be fully aligned with what it promises. Further, the business can’t exist to just sell more stuff. Its product should be a durable, long-term solution.
This is a radical approach to business in the 21st-century economy. To be constrained to selling a product that actually does what it says it’s going to do, a company will also be productively constrained in its operations, people management, and relationship with shareholders. It’s hard to make a durable, long-term solution to sell if you’re not willing to make durable, long-term investments in the structure and relationships that make a company.
Starting with why can easily become an excuse for bad behavior. Leaders can always point to the mission as proof of their pro-social stance. Any accusation of unfairness can be brushed off with mention of a higher purpose.
By prioritizing what, a company can work to avoid the excesses so easy to justify with why.
I’m on a mission to explore the future of work through a critical lens informed by 14 years of self-employment. See what I did there? Support this work by becoming a free or paying subscriber.