Brandeis recently hosted a Zoom discussion on Feb. 28 with class of ’95 alumnus and bestselling author Simon Sinek, which was moderated by Prof. Philippe Wells (IBS). Throughout the discussion, Sinek shared his thoughts about the nature of business management, as well as his personal experience of starting his career and attending Brandeis. He expressed his strong belief in optimism and his sensitivity to the mental health struggles which entrepreneurs go through.

Sinek showed enthusiasm for the opportunity to speak at his alma mater and welcomed the ability to speak to recent graduates and undergraduates on business management and optimism in the workplace, a topic which he has written and talked about a number of times in the last decade on platforms like TEDx. Sinek’s TEDx talk rose to be the third most viewed speech for the platform ever. 

The discussion opened with Wells explaining the process through which he recieved questions for Sinek and how the questions’ general themes revolved around entrepreneurship and business management. 

One of the first questions submitted was about what Sinek meant when he spoke about “focused optimism” in business and how to manage expectations when building a brand or enterprise. Sinek spoke on how there would always be a need for balance between realism and optimism, and he was quick to draw a distinction between optimism and blind positivity. “Optimism is the undying belief that the future is bright, but it’s not a denial of the current state. Optimism is not blind, nor naive. It is not blind toxic positivity: ‘Everything is fine!’” He made the point that oftentimes it is this “toxic positivity” mindset which leads to distrust in the workplace, where employees cannot trust the attitudes of those in charge of them since they are forcing people to be positive all the time, alienating leaders from their workers.  

The next question asked what steps students should take in order to build trust between their team members of a group project that accounts for a large percentage of their grade. Sinek started off by asserting that “just because you’re assigned in the same groups, it doesn’t mean you’re a team yet. A team is a group of people who trust each other.” The question Sinek then asked was, “Are you in service of your team, or in service of yourself?” He shared an anecdote, where he had split up students in his class between three groups: high performers, mid performers, and low performers. While the high performers did well they were held back from getting the highest scores due to their unwillingness to communicate with others in their group. Mid performers were almost always the highest scorers when it came to group projects, as they were cognizant of their own shortcomings and relied on the others in their group more. 

The conversation then turned to Sinek’s time at Brandeis. He talked about how he majored in cultural anthropology as an undergraduate, and discussed the lessons he had learned while working for the Student Union. During his term on the Allocations Board, he wrote several research papers on the different leadership styles which were exhibited by the members of student government and used these for research projects while working toward his major. He also complimented Brandeis for its low teacher-student ratio, saying that the one of the most valuable things he had learned while attending this University was how to intelligently disagree with his professors, something which wouldn’t be possible at other larger universities.

The next question came from a student who had been wondering about his business and how to balance decisions made in the short-term versus his vision for the future of his company. Sinek immediately replied that these considerations “include things like integrity and compliance with values. If you need a short term infusion of something, like from a shoddy investor, then do it. Just don’t be under any illusions that this is the future.” He expanded further, urging entrepreneurs to make sure that they research to figure out whether an investor would be open-minded to their goals. Pressure from investors is unavoidable if you take the money, but some might choose to punish you if you decline a client because they disagree with your end goal. He clarified that you might have to look past what some firms present themselves as and instead look at their history of action by talking to previous companies which they had chosen to invest in.

This led into the next section, which mainly dealt with maintaining healthy mental well-being while building your business. Sinek reaffirmed his position as an ardent supporter of meditation as a way to build internal discipline and focus, stating how “meditation is not about clearing your mind, it is about learning how to focus on one thing. When you have the ability to focus on one thing, like focusing on someone talking to you, they will feel that and they will respond more positively.” Sinek went on to clarify how he differentiated the idea of mental “health” from what he calls mental “fitness.” Considering that there is no perfect ideal of health, he explained, all that we can do is work to form a more fit connection with our emotions.

He covered a few questions about what he has been working on recently. These mostly concerned his charity project, The Curve, a project primarily dedicated to assisting police departments around the country with training, which is often far behind other innovations in healthcare and technology. The Curve’s primary goal is to help train better leaders in law enforcement so that all people can feel that justice is administered with dignity, equity and fairness.

The last question focused on how to impact the owner or leader of a company when they have shown time and time again not to change their worldview. Sinek’s response to this was simple: you cannot. You cannot force someone to share your worldview and act the way you would, he asserted. The question you should ask instead, according to Sinek: How do I become the leader that I wish I had? Leadership is the responsibility to help those around you rise, and you should take up the responsibility of leadership for those around you and build the workplace that you would like to see.

As the time for the discussion came to an end, Sinek thanked Wells for moderating and the Brandeis community for having him back to speak.