‘It is not about the Why.’

A while back Simon Sinek introduced a formula for success. That formula, the “why – how – what” argues that successful companies don’t sell the ‘what’ but the ‘why’. Although it is brilliant in its simplicity,  I am concerned about the consequences of  simplifying complexity too much. My main concern, however, is that Sinek forgot to ask the most important question of all. The one question that defines the answers to all the other ones. The one question around which these three questions revolve like the earth, moon and stars around the sun. The one question Leaders should ask to drive success.


A quarter of century ago I entered the wondrous world of marketing and brand strategy.  With a pride and confidence unhindered by any experience whatsoever I told whomever would listening that I was a ‘Strategy Consultant’. A friend of my father’s, at that time, actually was a Strategy Consultant. And had been a very successful one for 25 years. Kindly and patiently he asked me what I thought a Strategy Consultant was and did. I don’t remember my academic and probably inane answer. But I will never forget his response.

He explained to me that a real Strategy Consultant was basically hired to speak truth to authority. He explained further that strategy was doing the right thing. Tactics was doing things right. And execution was getting things done.  Of course he told me much more and this kind intervention and clear definitions helped me build my own career as a strategic marketing and organizational consultant.

My first concern then with Sinek’s argument it is that it is basically old news. It is the same as that old triad of Strategy – Tactics – Execution.  But without the bothersome complexity. It is the same as the old advertising adage ‘sell the sizzle, not the steak’. Even I knew, when I started 25 years ago, that people don’t buy products, they buy stories.

But my main concern is that Sinek forgot to ask the most important question. The one question Leaders should ask to drive success.

And that question is “Who?” Who are you? Who do you want to be?

Identity, and not strategy, who and not why, is at the heart of all your decisions and choices.

If you don’t know who you are, as a leader, as an organization, as a brand and even as a product you do not have the proper foundation to base your decisions on, nor the framework to evaluate whether or not you are doing the right thing, the right way, efficiently and effectively.

Identity drives the answers as to the why, how and what of marketing and communication. Not the other way around.

That brings us to the heart of the matter. To the core of the complexity. What is Identity? How do we define Identity?

Over the past 25 years I have seen and used many definitions, forms and schematics. But ultimately none of them were effective. They did not work because they were basically lists. Static lists, bullet points of traits and qualities, values and beliefs or accomplishments and achievements.

But who we are is greater and larger than the sum of all of these parts. And we are not static. We evolve and grow and stay the same yet not. Identity brims with conflict and contradiction, with paradox and paradigm shifts. Identity cannot be contained within a list. Furthermore, what logic drives those lists, what connects the dots and what is their greater purpose?

To make a long story short, I came to define Identity as Story. Identity is a Story we tell ourselves and others about ourselves. A Story that captures and conveys a sense of self, a sense of purpose and a sense of direction.

Our Story defines us. Our Story gives meaning and purpose to who we are and what we do. Most importantly, understanding and authoring our Story transforms us from passive spectators or helpless victims and puts us smack dab in the middle of the driver’s seat.  It gives us autonomy and sovereignty. As the poet Henley phrases it in his poem Invictus: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

Why we do the things we do is rooted deeply within our sense of self, sense of purpose and sense of direction, within our Identity, within our Story.

Who we are is not what we say we are. After all, there is a difference between the man who tells you he is funny and the man who makes you laugh. Identity is a story we write with our character, plot with our choices and tell with our actions. The only story we can credibly tell is our own. And the power of our story will determine the measure of our success. How you rationalize it is another story.

Bovenstaande column is een doorplaatsing van het blog van Ashraf Ramzy. Ashraf Ramzy (1961) is oprichter en directeur Narrativity – een strategisch adviesbureau gespecialiseerd in Organisatie Identiteit en Cultuur. Bij AOG School of Management is hij docent in de leergang Merkmanagement.

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