Why, How, What (The Golden Circle Model)

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Developed by Ugur Erman



Figure 1: An image highlighting the components of the model: WHY, HOW and WHAT. The image shows that purposeful projects are driven when project managers and team members think from inside out (from WHY to WHAT). [1]

One of the key things for a project manager, in regard to doing projects, is to establish a strong vision. By establishing the purpose of the project, the vision enables the team members of the projects to collaborate, it gives them a direction and it gives the team members a great opportunity to develop and grow. By having a purpose of a project, it becomes possible to answer why the project is being done in the first place. [1]

According to Best Management Practice, a vision is "a picture of a better future". [2] There are several ways to establish a vision of a project and one of them is by asking: WHY? Simon Sinek, a British-American author and marketing consultant is the person who has developed The Golden Circle Model. This model consists of the questions WHY, HOW and WHAT. According to Sinek, every organization and leader know WHAT they are doing, some know HOW they do it and very few know WHY they are doing it. And by WHY (according to Sinek) very few organizations and leaders know the purpose of the things they are doing. As a result, Sinek finds that the way unsuccessful organizations and leaders think is from outside in (from WHAT to WHY). In contrast, the more inspiring and successful organizations and leaders think from inside out (from WHY to WHAT). [1] [3]

In the following of this article, several aspects of the model will be treated, such as

  1. A more detailed explanation of the model.
  2. How the model can be applied in regard to project management.
  3. The limitations of the model.

Big Idea

In this section of the article the Golden Circle Model will be explained and the points that the model itself states will also be included in this section.

The Golden Circle model is a model that can be used in a variety of ways. It can be used by organizations, by people every day and by leaders among others. The leader can be the CEO of a company or it can be a project manager among others. The model is designed by Simon Sinek and it consists of 3 parts: WHY, HOW and WHAT.

The WHAT part of the model describes - as the name states - WHAT is being done in the project. HOW describes HOW the WHAT part of the project is conducted. However, the WHY part of the model is the purpose of the project. It states WHY the WHAT part of the project is being done.

According to Sinek, everyone knows WHAT they are doing, some people know HOW they do it, but very few people know WHY they do it. The question "WHY?" shall not be answered with something as making money, since that is a result of the things that are being done. However by asking WHY, the purpose of the project and its cause and belief shall be defined. [4]

The Golden Circle Model states that the way most people are thinking is from WHAT to WHY, which corresponds to from outside in, since it is easier to go from things that are most clear (WHAT) to things that are most difficult to understand and thus the fuzziest things (WHY). In contrast to those people, inspired leaders including project managers and other inspired people think from WHY to WHAT - from inside out and they are the ones who will drive projects purposefully. The inspired leaders who know WHY they do the projects will not only be successful, but they will be able to sustain the success and be able to grow continuously. On the other hand, the leaders who begin to lose the idea of WHY the projects are done - the purpose and belief of the project, those are the ones who will experience lack of loyalty and inspiration among the co-workers and team members. When the loyalty and inspiration among the co-workers are lost, the leader will (according to the model) most likely make use of manipulation rather than inspiration to motivate behavior. [4]

Figure 2: Relationship between the Golden Circle Model and the human brain. The WHAT part of the Golden Circle corresponds with the neocortex whereas both HOW and WHY correspond with the limbic brain. [4]

The Golden Circle Model is not just a model that help leaders and project managers to communicate to successfully drive a project. The model is closely related to the human biology and especially the human brain. The WHAT part of the model that a leader uses corresponds with the neocortex, a part of the brain that is responsible for analytical thought among others. However, both HOW and especially WHY corresponds with the limbic brain which is responsible for feelings such as loyalty. When leaders communicate from outside in, they are able to connect with their co-workers in terms of information. The downside of this way of communicating a vision is that it will not drive behavior. On the other hand, when leaders communicate the vision from inside out, it triggers the part of the human brain that is responsible for decision making and it will thus drive the behavior of the participants of the project. [4]

Clarity, Discipline and Consistency

In his model, Sinek explains something he calls the Clarity of WHY, the Discipline of HOW and the Consistency of WHAT. He believes that everything starts with clarity, meaning that the inspiring leaders need to know WHY the WHATs are being done. They also need to clearly articulate the WHY to their co-workers since the co-workers need to know WHY they have to be part of a project and WHY they have to passionately work for the project.

With the discipline of HOW, Sinek believes that the HOWs are the values and principles that will help leaders and the team members to successfully bring the purpose of the project to life. The discipline of HOW is important when things seem to go wrong. When a leader is able to hold his or her team members accountable to the values and principles, it will inspire and enhance team members to team work and work more passionately.

As stated earlier, WHY is the purpose and belief of the project and the HOWs are the actions. The WHATs however are the results of the HOWs. Since team members buy WHY they do things rather than WHAT they do, it is - according to the model - important that the WHATs are consistent. When the WHATs are consistent, the people that a leader inspires will most likely believe the purpose of the project, the WHY. With consistency of WHAT comes authenticity. Authenticity basically means that the Golden Circle is in balance, meaning that both the leader and the team members believe the things that are being said and done. When the Golden Circle is not in balance however, then stress and uncertainty take place. Sinek does not believe that authenticity is an absolute must in terms of having success, but it will definitely help. However, without a clear definition of the WHY of a project, the project itself cannot have an authenticity. [4]

Example 1

In the late nineteenth century the new technology was to create an airplane. The most well-known people in this regard are Samuel Pierpont Langley and the Wright brothers. The Wright brothers are the ones who are actually credited for inventing the world's first successful airplane in 1903. [5] [6] Langley graduated from high school and worked as a professor of mathematics at a university. Langley was a well-connected man and he was well funded. He was able to assemble a great team around him to create the world's first successful airplane. The team members included well-known engineers and the team had access to good resources in terms of materials. On the other hand, the Wright brothers did attend high school for three years, but they did not get their diploma. Their team included people who did not graduate college and even people who did not graduate high school. Unlike Langley, they were not well funded. The only source of money they had access to, was the money they made during the time they worked at their bicycle shop. [5] [6]

When an overview is taken of the situations, Samuel Pierpont Langley was the person who had the best chances of having success. However, the Wright brothers were the first ones to succeed in 1903. According to Sinek, one advantage that the Wright brothers had over Langley was that they had inspiration and they were able to inspire others. The Wright brothers were inspired and motivated by a belief and a purpose - or in other words, they started with a WHY - where they also inspired their team members to drive behavior. Despite several failed attempts, the Wright brothers and their team did not give up because there was a clarity of WHY. In contrast, Langley started and was motivated by WHAT. He was more concerned with becoming famous and wealthy. Because the Wright brothers started with WHY and because they were thinking from inside out, they were the ones who succeeded. [3]

Example 2

One of the most influential persons in the twentieth century is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1963 in Washington D.C. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech as the leader of the civil rights movement. The speech was given in order to address the inequality and segregation that America was facing in the 1960s. At that time 250,000 civil rights supporters showed up and the speech itself was and still is considered as a defining moment of the civil rights movement. [7]

One might ask why Dr. King was so successful with his speech. Surely there were other people at that time who were thinking the same as Dr. King and surely were there other people who knew WHAT needed to be done as Dr. King knew. The way Dr. King was able to distinguish himself from others was through his clarity of WHY. He was able to clearly articulate WHY things needed to change and it inspired other people to believe the same as he did. Dr. King was not necessarily able to inspire people in terms of HOW the WHATs should be done, but he surely did inspire them in terms of WHY things needed to change. The people who showed up heard his beliefs, they were touched by them and they were incorporating the ideas into their own lives. [3]


Figure 3: Diffusion of Innovations. The population can be divided into 5 categories: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards. [8]

As it has been stated earlier, the Golden Circle Model can be applied by leaders on different levels. The leader can among others be the CEO of a company or it can be the project manager of a project team. No matter what level the leader is on, it is important to inspire people to believe the belief and purpose of the ideas a leader might have in order to create behavior.

In this regard the Golden Circle Model is related to the Law of Diffusion of Innovation, a theory described by Everett Rogers which tells why, how and at what rate ideas spread. [9] According to the theory, the population can be divided into 5 categories: 2.5 % Innovators, 13.5 % Early Adopters, 34 % Early Majority, 34 % Late Majority and 16 % Laggards. Basically, the innovators are the part of the population who are willing to pursue and come up with a new idea quickly and they are the ones who think differently from most people. The early adopters are somehow similar to the innovators, but they generally do not come up with new ideas, but they welcome new ideas. The early adopters are followed by the early majority and the late majority which are somewhat similar, but the late majority people are normally more skeptical to new ideas compared to the early majority. The early majority people are the ones who feel safer when other people have pursued an idea before them. The laggards on the other hand are people who are more comfortable with how things are at the concerned time. They appreciate traditions more than new ideas. [9] [4]

Obviously, when a leader presents a new idea or a new project, the leader will face people who believe in the idea or in the project more than other people do. It is also to be noted that one person might believe in one idea presented, but the same person might not believe another idea which is presented. Therefore, people who are considered early adopters for one idea might be considered late majority when it comes to another idea, since different people believe in different things. One might ask: "How and to which group should the leader then articulate the WHY?" Looking at figure 3, it is evident that the laggards are the one furthest to the right. Therefore, the more a leader speaks to people on the right side of the curve in figure 3, the less is the leader inspiring to make people believe the purpose of the idea - the WHY. When a leader is trying to use the Golden Circle Model to inspire people, the early adopters should be the first type of people, who the manager appeals to, since the leader is categorized as an innovator and because the early adopters do not come up with new ideas, but they tend to quickly pursue new ideas. Since the early majority and late majority are somehow dependent on the early adopters (they become safer when others pursue an idea), a more global understanding and acceptance of the idea will happen and thus it will create a more global inspiration and behavior in the group, the leader is trying to inspire.

The leader should aim for the so-called tipping point. This is a point where the spread of the WHY happens at a rapid pace and where most people accept and believe the idea. According to the Diffusion of Innovations, this will happen when approximately 15-18 percent of the people that the leader is trying to inspire are inspired. This percentage of the people should be furthest to the left on the curve in figure 3. This percentage of the inspired people are the ones who believe the WHY and to purposefully drive a project or an idea, the leader must start with WHY. [4]


Although the Golden Circle Model seems to be a model that can be widely used among leaders, it is not a perfect tool. Simon Sinek states that organizations and leaders who have a clear WHY and who think from inside out are successful. However, one might ask whether this is true or not. Although Sinek makes several points and gives several examples of companies and people who have been thinking from inside out, there is no empirical data backing up his statements. Even though it seems to make sense that a clear WHY can drive behavior, it is not proved that a company or a leader who start with WHAT or HOW has not been able to drive projects or a company successfully.

According to Best Management Practice (BMP), there are several things that characterize a good vision. One of them is that the vision should be easy to understand for the stakeholders and that the vision should be written "... with the broadest groupings of stakeholders as the target audience" [2]. When the Golden Circle Model is held up against the good vision characteristics from BMP, it is evident that the Golden Circle Model is lacking in this regard. The model itself does not really take stakeholders directly into account. It is more focused on inspiring people to believe what a leader believes. Obviously, the people might include the stakeholders as well. However, this is not clearly articulated in the model and it can therefore easily be assumed that the model does not take stakeholders into account.

When the vision subject is treated more broadly, it is difficult to compare the Golden Circle Model to the status quo of the standards. Looking at ISO 21500:2013, it is evident that there is no clear definition of a vision and what a vision needs to include [10]. The standards, however, has a part that deals with the vision subject in terms of the strategy of an organization. Therefore, it can be said that the Golden Circle Model is not a part of the standards, but it extents them. The model itself cannot necessarily be used in terms of an organization as a whole, but it can definitely be used in terms of the projects that an organization conducts.

As it is mentioned above, the statements from Simon Sinek are not backed up by empirical data and he is the only person who speaks about the model. It is important to critically evaluate some of the statements he makes about the model, but especially the relationship between the model and the human brain. Even though it seems to make sense that different parts of the brain trigger different things, it is to be noted that the brain is a complex system. Therefore, it might not be that easy to say what part of the brain drives behavior and what part of the brain is responsible for gathering information, since it might be a complex combination of different parts of the brain that, for instance, are responsible for behavior.

Annotated bibliography

  • Sinek, Simon, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, 2009, Portfolio. ISBN 978-1-59184-280-4.

This book is written by Simon Sinek himself. In this book, different aspects of the Golden Circle Model are treated. There is a blend of explanation of the theory of the Golden Circle Model with lots of examples. Sinek is quite often using Apple as an example in order to show and tell the reader of the book how Apple has differentiated themselves by starting with WHY. The book does not only cover the model in regard to how leaders should inspire people. Readers can also find a section of the book where it is explained how the model can represent the structure of a company or an organization.

  • Best Management Practice, Managing Succesful Programmes, 2011 Edition.

In this book, different aspects of managing programs are covered. In regard to this article, there is a small section about the vision perspective, where the reader can get information about what a vision is and what a good vision should include. Additionally, readers can get information from this book about different program management principles, risk management, leadership and stakeholder engagement.

  • ISO 21500:2013.

This document is the standards on project management. The standards provide a guidance on project management. These standards include several definitions related to projects and project management. The chapters of this document are split into 4 parts: Scope, terms and definitions, project management concepts and project management processes. One thing that the reader cannot directly find information about in these standards is vision and what a vision should include. The vision part is only covered in these standards in terms of how organizations establish a strategy based on several things including the vision.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Geraldi, Joana et al., How to DO Projects Vision, Version 0.5. BETA VERSION, 2016. p. 4.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Best Management Practice, Managing Succesful Programmes, 2011 Edition. p. 53-58.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 TED. Simon Sinek: Hvordan store ledere inspirerer til handling. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=da#t-180980, [Accessed 12 February 2018].
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Sinek, Simon, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, 2009, Portfolio. ISBN 978-1-59184-280-4.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Wikipedia. Wright brothers. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_brothers, [Accessed 16 February 2018].
  6. 6.0 6.1 Wikipedia. Samuel Pierpont Langley, [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Pierpont_Langley, [Accessed 16 February 2018].
  7. Wikipedia. I Have a Dream, [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Have_a_Dream, [Accessed 16 February 2018]
  8. Medium. 2015. Start with Why: Law of Diffusion of Innovations (Chapter 7 & 8). [ONLINE] Available at: https://medium.com/@seancrawford21/start-with-why-law-of-diffusion-of-innovations-chapter-7-8-1b8f2a2555ba, [Accessed 20 February 2018]
  9. 9.0 9.1 Wikipedia. Diffusion of Innovations. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations, [Accessed 20 February 2018]
  10. ISO 21500:2013
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