Leadership Expert Simon Sinek on the Importance of Finding Your Tribe

“Whoever thinks they can do this thing called ‘life’ by themselves is kidding themselves.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • The key leadership habit that Nelson Mandela learned from his father
  • Why listening should be so exhausting
  • Why we all deserve (just) a styrofoam cup

Simon Sinek is a bestselling author and leadership expert whose TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” has been viewed over 40 million times, making it one of the most popular TED Talks of all time. He recently joined Jordan Harbinger on The Jordan Harbinger Show to discuss how to build trusting relationships, and why we all get by with a little help from our friends.

Jordan: I would love it if we could go over how trust is influenced by shared values and culture, and the role that trust plays in groups. The example you give in Find Your Why was how you run into Americans overseas and you’re like, “Hey, you’re from New York, I’m from Michigan—we should totally hang out for the day!” Whereas if I met somebody from New York here in Silicon Valley, I would not care at all.

Simon: Trust is essential because we want to know that somebody’s got our backs. Like how do you know your friends are your friends? Love and trust and all of these things, they’re feelings, not instructions. You cannot order people to trust each other. They are feelings, and they are born out of the environment. The environment comes from shared values and shared belonging.

As you said, I live in New York, but if somebody comes up to me and says, “I’m from New York too, we should be friends,” I’m like, “You’re weird.” But if I’m standing in Paris, where I don’t feel like I belong, and I hear an American accent on the Paris Metro, I’m going to walk up and say, “Where are you guys from? You’re from Alabama? I’m from New York!” And we’re going to be friends because neither of us feels like we belong. Simply hearing an accent, or knowing that these people have a common sense of what we stand for and the experiences we’ve had, creates a sense of camaraderie amongst us in this world in which we don’t feel like we belong.

It’s tribalism, and the modern-day tribe is the company—so the best companies are values-based. They have a sense of purpose and cause, and when we work there, we feel like we can be ourselves. Trust is a biological construction born out of the environments we’re in.

Jordan: How can we foster this not just in our companies, but within circles of friends, within families? Do you find yourself applying these things in your personal life outside of work?

Simon: The only difference between work and home are the clothes we wear and the tables we sit at. I am who I am, and the reason my friends love me is the same reason my colleagues love me. It’s me, and if I’m different in one of those two places, then in one of those two places, I’m lying. Authenticity means that you say and do the things you actually believe. If others believe what you believe, they will be drawn to you. If they don’t believe what you believe, they will be repelled by you. It’s not good or bad—we don’t have to hate people who have different beliefs. We don’t have to be friends with everybody either, but we do have to respect other beliefs, we have to respect things that are not our own.

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And what you do is you find your tribe. Sometimes it’s silly that when you’re going to a game and you see somebody wearing the same jersey as you because of the same team, you say hi to them. These are total strangers who just happen to like the same team, [yet we feel] this intense camaraderie at a finals game. We’re tribal—we want to feel safe amongst our own. We know that somebody in that jersey will probably defend us if somebody from the other team attacks us.

So when we seek to trust others, and we want others to trust us, somebody has to go first—and it’s the leader who takes the risk to trust first. I’ve never in my life heard a great leader say, “Give me a reason why I should trust you.” They simply bestow trust. I’ve never in my life heard a great leader that says, “Prove why I should give you more responsibility.” They assess someone’s skills and potential, and take the risk to give them more responsibility.

Sometimes they get it right, and that person may discover that they’re capable of more than they thought, or they get it wrong, giving more responsibility a little too soon. It’s like being a parent—we want to see our kids grow, and sometimes we give them a long leash, and sometimes we keep them on a short leash. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong, and it’s a dance. But if it’s a healthy relationship, the kid knows that it’s always based in love.

Good leadership is the same thing. When we’re building friendships, it’s a dance. We start slowly, we take little risks, we open ourselves up a little bit, they reciprocate, and then you do a little more, and then they reciprocate, and eventually at some point, you wake up in the morning and you’re like, “Oh my God, I totally trust them.”

And you trust them because you feel like you can be yourself around them. You can express your values, desires, comforts, and discomforts, and even though they may disagree, they won’t judge you, and you will never feel like you’re being judged. This is what we all seek, as human beings—this is what we all desire. We want this in our relationships, we want this in our friendships, and frankly, we want it at work too.

Jordan: So in this way, we’re sort of shaping each other with our expectations. We give each other a little bit of responsibility, and you either meet that challenge, or you fail. And if we say what we believe and we do what we believe, we’ll attract people who believe what we believe. That actually comes into play with how I met my wife—she used to listen to the show all the time, and when we started talking online, she was really curious if I was actually the person that she had heard all these years on the podcast. So one of the primary drivers was, “Okay, is this guy going to be like he is on the show, or is he just this total [jerk]? I’m curious enough to go out with him at least once.” And now we’re married.

“If others believe what you believe, they will be drawn to you.”

Simon: That’s 100% right. And some people unfortunately do become affected by the recognition that comes their way, and they aren’t the people who they portray themselves to be, and we’re disappointed. It’s like the rule, “Never meet your heroes.”

It reminds me of one of my favorite stories, of a former Undersecretary of Defense who is giving a presentation to a large conference, about 1,000 people. He’s giving his prepared remarks and in the middle of his remarks, he interrupts himself and smiles and says, “You know, last year I was still the undersecretary, and I spoke at this exact same conference.

“Last year, I flew here business class, and there was somebody waiting for me at the airport to take me to the hotel. They took me to the hotel, and somebody had already checked me in, and they simply took me up to my room. The next morning, I came down and somebody was waiting for me in the lobby, and they brought me to this venue. They took me into the green room and handed me a cup of coffee in a beautiful ceramic cup.”

He says, “I’m no longer the undersecretary, and I flew here coach. I took a taxi to the hotel, I checked myself in. This morning, I came down and took another taxi to the venue. I walked through the front doors, found my way backstage, and when I asked somebody, ‘Do you have any coffee?’ he pointed to the coffee machine, and I poured myself a cup of coffee into this styrofoam cup. The ceramic cup was never meant for me. It was meant for the position I held. I deserve a styrofoam cup.”

And that’s the point—we all only deserve a styrofoam cup. And many of the perks that we are given come as a result of the position we hold, not based on who we are.

As you gain fame or rank, people do treat you differently; they respect the rank. They hold doors open for you, they send you gifts, they call you “sir” or “ma’am,” they bring you tea or coffee without you asking. If you left your coat in the other room, someone will get your coat for you.

There are perks—including money—that come with rising in the social hierarchy, and the great leaders are the ones who understand that those perks are being given to their rank, not to them. And the ones that disappoint us are the ones that believe that they’re entitled to those perks, that they deserve the ceramic cup.

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Jordan: How do we get in there before we start conflating our position with our identity? I didn’t have a downfall from Undersecretary to styrofoam cup, but I’d certainly had a dip where I went, “Oh my God, I’m just nobody again. I’ve got to start over. This is terrible.” I had wrapped my status around my identity so tightly that once it came off, I was a bucket of jello. Thankfully, my producer Jason and my wife were both like, “Hey, get out of bed, jerk. We’ve got work to do.”

Simon: You answered the question yourself: other people. Somebody reminded you that you’re wonderful, somebody told you to get over yourself.

Whoever thinks they can do this thing called “life” by themselves is kidding themselves. Life is really difficult, and it takes a lot of help. Anybody who thinks they can do this thing called “career” by themselves is nuts. Life, business, career, profession, parenting—all of these things are incredibly difficult, and they require advice, emotional support, mentorship, friendship, and the ability to ask for and receive help.

You had other people in your life—that’s a very good thing, and in this day and age, we have our devices in our lives so much that many of us are either not learning or forgetting [good] social skills: how to interact with human beings, and how to ask for help, how to rely on people. And when we don’t ask for help, or there aren’t others there for us—and I don’t mean in an online chat room, I mean a physical human being—we become lonelier and lonelier, and the situation becomes more and more desperate. Had your producer and your wife not been there for you, you would have continued to spiral down, and it would have taken some sort of significant act to get you out of it, or something horrible would have happened.

I think we undervalue the importance of social skills. It’s not something you take a class for, but it’s something that takes years to practice: crying with a friend, asking for help, expressing yourself, expressing anger in a healthy way, all of these things that we just brush off and call being human. I cannot stand the term “soft skills.” It’s hard skills and human skills, and we have to learn both. Both require education, and both require practice. We’re not born with these skills—it’s our upbringing and the way we choose to live our lives that make us good and healthy and able to apply these skills when necessary.

Jordan: What would you tell someone who you see is excelling, getting to the top, but has sacrificed a lot of their relationships? Is there any way you can get someone to wake up and smell the coffee, and realize that they’re headed for disaster? Because as soon as they hit a stumbling block, they won’t have a support group around them.

“Many of the perks that we are given come as a result of the position we hold, not based on who we are.”

Simon: I think you just summed up the problem in our country today: too much telling and not enough listening. The left is trying to tell the right, the right is trying to tell the left. The pro-gun lobby is trying to tell the gun control lobby, and the gun control lobby is trying to tell the pro-gun lobby. Everybody is telling everybody what it should be and what they should do, and nobody listens. If I had a friend in that position, I wouldn’t tell him anything. I would ask, “Are you happy? How are you? What is going on?” I would shut up and listen.

I think this is one of the most essential skills in life that has almost completely fallen by the wayside and in modern America, which is the art of listening, the skill of listening—a very difficult skill that requires education and tons of practice. If you do it right, active listening makes you exhausted by the end because it takes so much energy. Where you don’t just hear the words that are spoken, but you understand the meaning behind those words. Where you seek out common ground, to try to find whether there are common values—only then can you actually start to have a discussion.

I think the lesson is best captured by a story that Nelson Mandela used to tell. He was asked once, “How did you learn to become a great leader?” What people don’t realize is that he was actually born the son of a tribal chief, and he said, “I went to tribal meetings with my father when I was a boy, and I remember two things: They always sat in a circle, and my father was always the last to speak.”

Even though his father had rank, he paid everyone respect and treated them with equality by sitting in a circle. He didn’t sit at the head of the table per se, and instead of speaking first, he chose to speak last. We’re always telling each other, “You have to learn to listen,” but I think it’s a lesson best captured with the advice, “Practice being the last to speak.” Think about how we start meetings—even well-intentioned leaders walk into a room and say, “Okay, guys, here’s the problem, and here’s what I think we should do, and I really want to know what you think.”

Well, it’s too late—you’ve either biased the room, or you’ve made people think or feel that their opinions don’t matter. Strong leaders are the ones who say, “Here’s the problem. Tell me what you think,” and do so with such a poker face that as you’re speaking, you don’t know if they agree or disagree with you. They’re trying to take in all the counsel from everyone. Even if the leader makes a decision that is opposite to the one that you are recommending, you feel heard.

Just think about it in terms of friendship—men are particularly bad at this. All we want to do is fix problems. So somebody says, “Oh, I’ve got this going on,” and we go, “Oh, you know what you should do? You should totally do this.” We all do it, but sometimes all people want is just to feel heard. When somebody says, “Oh, my boss is driving me crazy,” instead of offering them a bunch of solutions, we can simply say, “Wow, that sucks. Tell me more.” We think they want a solution, but what they want is somebody to listen. It’s all well-intentioned, but if they want advice, let them ask for it.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. Click here to listen to the full version on The Jordan Harbinger Show.