Simon Sinek: A Just Cause Fuels Your Business

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Infinite Game" by Simon Sinek. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does your company have a Just Cause? What is the larger need—beyond the immediate provision of the product—that your business aims to fulfil?

A Just Cause outlines the reason you are in business beyond the provision of any one specific product or service. It provides a context for all the decisions you’ll make and inspires people to work hard and make sacrifices because they believe in the cause. 

In this article, we will take a look at the characteristics of a Just Cause and how a Just Cause looks like in real-world business.

What Is a Just Cause?

Sinek defines a Just Cause as a specific vision of an ideal state of the future that inspires people. Your Just Cause must paint a clear picture that others can see: A promise to “improve the world” doesn’t provide enough substance or specificity to inspire people. According to Simon Sinek, a Just Cause has five elements:

  1. It stands for something, not against something: It’s optimistic and hopeful.
  2. It’s idealistic: It’s inspiring, bold, and ultimately unachievable.
  3. It’s inclusive: It invites and inspires others to join.
  4. It’s resilient: It can endure technological, cultural, political, and industry changes.
  5. It’s service-oriented: It’s aimed at the benefit of others.
Panasonic’s Infinite-Minded Just Cause

Panasonic is an example of a company with a corporate strategy that embodies each of the five elements of a Just Cause. In 1932, the company’s head, Kōnosuke Matsushita, laid out a 250-year vision based on the notion that the primary purpose of a business should be to increase human happiness. His strategy was to “overcome poverty by producing an abundant supply of goods,” which would “banish poverty, bring happiness to people’s lives and make this world into a paradise.”
This vision stood for something, was inclusive, was service-oriented, was resilient, and was idealistic. Today, the company’s vision has expanded and includes goals for helping the environment, helping communities, and being responsible. Its Just Cause has powered it for decades and positioned it strongly to face the future. 

1. A Just Cause Stands for Something, Not Against Something

A Just Cause does not name something we want to work against, but rather, something we want to work for. When people work against something, they are often filled with some combination of fear and anger. In contrast, when people work for something, they are filled with hope and optimism. 

Working against something leads to finite thinking because we focus on specific, known solutions to defined problems. Working for something focuses us on the future and opens our eyes to alternative solutions that might bring us to our ideal state in any number of ways. 

For example, if you encourage your team to beat your competitors by coming up with a better mousetrap, you frame their efforts as a struggle to a specified endpoint. If, however, you encourage your team to think about how homeowners can control disease vectors in their houses, the struggle isn’t framed as “winnable,” but rather, as something to continually work toward. 

2. A Just Cause Is Idealistic

A Just Cause must be a big and bold enough idea to inspire people with a vision of the world that they want to work towards. Sinek cites the Declaration of Independence as a great example of idealism. Though the interpretation of the Declaration has changed over the years, the words continue to inspire people to reach for an ideal state. Its statement of universal rights was originally intended to protect the rights of white, landowning, Protestant men, but was soon applied to other groups—even George Washington discouraged discrimination against Catholics and later, the Constitution was updated to protect the rights of many others, including African Americans and women. 

The ever-changing nature of how America is reflected by its founding values illustrates a key characteristic of a Just Cause: Its mission is never fully accomplished. Victories along the way should be celebrated as a glimpse into the future vision of the ideal state the Just Cause espouses, and the Cause should continue to inspire people to work towards it in ever-changing ways.

3. A Just Cause Is Inclusive

A Just Cause makes others feel included in its mission. People like to feel included in a group, such as a church or a team. A Just Cause that inspires people to imagine a positive alternative future can start movements by attracting people to join in with other like-minded believers. 

How to Attract Followers With a Feeling of Inclusiveness

Sinek is not the only management expert to recommend attracting followers by emphasizing a strong and inclusive team culture. For example, in his book Zero to One, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal) advises you to highlight your unique mission over superficial perks. He points out that perks like game rooms and yoga lunches get a lot of press, but to recruit talent to your company over a competitor’s, you must offer something more meaningful: a sense of purpose and belonging. Talk about why your mission is unique and compelling. Make them feel they’d fit in and enjoy working with their teammates. Emphasize a common identity, even if that means issuing t-shirts with the company logo. 
In the extreme, your organization can benefit by feeling slightly cult-like, where the employees are intensely dedicated to serving a greater truth in order to improve the world. 

4. A Just Cause Is Resilient

A Just Cause can endure changes in the business, political, and technological landscapes. If your company revolves around a specific product, then your organization’s existence depends on those products staying relevant. But if your organization revolves around a Just Cause, you can stay infinitely relevant no matter how the environment changes; you will be able to see how and when your products need to be adjusted in order to continue to serve that Cause.

For example, had the railroad companies in the early 1900s seen themselves as transportation providers, dedicated to moving people around efficiently, rather than as companies that sold train tickets, they might have evolved into car companies during the advent of the automotive industry. Likewise, if music producers had seen themselves as distributors of music rather than sellers of CDs, they might have adapted better to the competitive challenges of digital streaming. 

Using Vision Statements to Increase Resilience

Management expert and bestselling authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras discuss the higher causes driving companies in their book Built to Last, which has the same goal as The Infinite Game: helping leaders develop and maintain companies that will stay relevant and overcome years of challenges. 

Quite a few of their theories overlap with Sinek’s. In particular, their discussion of vision statements offers additional insight into Sinek’s thoughts on resilience

Collins and Porras point out that lasting companies have two sides to their vision statements: A core principle that gives them an overall mission. A more practical principle that directs their actions on a more specific level but can be changeable.

For example, a company might set out to “help students learn,” which would be their overriding, larger mission (their “Just Cause,” in Sinek’s terms). On a more practical level, they might have a mission of “offering tutoring services.” As their business evolves, they may change that more practical mission to “offering online video tutorials” or even “making documentaries,” and as long as the new direction fits with their core principle, they’re being true to their vision. The stability of the core principle combined with the flexibility of the practical principle increases the company’s resilience.

5. A Just Cause Is Service-Oriented

Every company or effort involves both givers and receivers—people who contribute their money, effort, or time (company leaders, investors, and employees), and people who benefit from it (customers, other citizens, and the wider world). 

When a Just Cause is service-oriented, the primary benefits of an organization’s efforts go to people other than the contributors themselves—this might be the company’s customers or it might be a worthwhile cause, such as saving the environment or alleviating poverty. 

The customers of a service-oriented company feel genuinely cared about or genuinely care about the cause, and as a result, are often willing to pay a premium for that company’s products or services. Thus, in the long run, a company benefits from serving others. 

It’s important to note that service orientation is not the same as charity. 

  • In a charity, the vast majority of an organization’s benefits go to the people on the receiving end. 
  • In a business, the first benefits go to the receivers, but there are plenty of benefits left over for the contributors—those who contribute their time, money, and efforts to creating a product or service have every right to be fairly compensated.

What Isn’t a Just Cause?

Sinek points out that there are times when a leader intends to adopt a Just Cause but does so improperly. In these cases, a vision or strategy resembles a Just Cause but is actually a finite-minded goal. 

A Lofty Goal Is Not a Just Cause

Sinek emphasizes that you shouldn’t confuse a Just Cause with a lofty goal. A lofty goal is a finite goal—a specific objective with a defined time frame and end. A Just Cause is infinite. As you’re working towards your Just Cause, you might incorporate a lofty goal, but you must recognize it as only a step towards your larger purpose, instead of as the cause itself. 

Another word for a lofty goal is a “moon shot,” named after John F. Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon in the 1960s. Moon shots often have many of the elements of a Just Cause—for example, Kennedy’s goal of a moon landing:

  • Was specific
  • Worked for something, in an affirmative way
  • Was inclusive, engaging the imaginations of all Americans
  • Was service-oriented, benefiting scientific advancement and national unity
  • Inspired sacrifice, through the hard work and dedication of many professionals

However, Sinek points out that Kennedy’s goal was a finite one within a larger, infinite game. Kennedy alluded to this larger vision when he explained the reason behind his lofty goal: “There is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” 

Beating the Competition Is Not a Just Cause  

Sinek also cautions that many leaders mistake becoming “the best” or offering “the best products” in their industry as a Just Cause. Unfortunately, this type of goal is too broad and too vague to offer useful guidance. 

Further, it violates the first element of a Just Cause: to stand for something, not against something (it positions the company or their products as against the competition). It also violates the third element (being service-oriented), as it encourages an organization to focus on itself instead of on its customers, who should be its primary beneficiaries.

Additionally, a company aiming to be “the best” will often focus exclusively on the strength of its existing product line, and will defend that product line as if the products themselves are their Just Cause. Unfortunately, without a higher purpose, your company becomes dependent on your product staying relevant, which leaves you unable to effectively adapt when changes come along (which they inevitably will).

Success Can Be a Trap

Focusing on being “the best” can lead a company to fall into the “success trap,” where they grow complacent if they spend a lot of time as the industry leader. Polaroid is an example of a company that succumbed to its own success. For many years, it dominated the instant-film category, with little need to innovate. It didn’t anticipate how disruptive digital cameras would be for its business, and the company declared bankruptcy in 2001. 

Growth Is Not a Just Cause  

Many leaders aim to grow their organizations, as if growth itself is a reason for existence. They fill their corporate “strategies” with benchmarks and milestones to measure that growth—hitting certain sales targets or profit margins—and mistakenly believe they’ve put together a worthy cause. But this is like deciding to build a huge building and establishing milestones for how many bricks you’ll lay per day without thinking about what the building will be used for. 

Too much growth too quickly can weaken a company if it spreads its resources too thinly in order to meet arbitrary growth targets. For example, if you open 150 new locations but don’t have the resources to adequately train your new staff in each one, those locations are less likely to thrive.

Further, investors’ expectations of growth can be particularly unrealistic for mature companies. Young companies naturally experience higher growth rates as their products and services are adopted, but as a company matures and its products or services saturate a market, its growth naturally slows. 

In the face of slower, more mature growth, executives often try to spur growth again through mergers and acquisitions. Unfortunately, more often than not, this growth strategy doesn’t lead to success. 

Growth Should Be About Giving as Well as Taking

To prove his point, Sinek quotes a report from Harvard Business Review that finds that 70 to 90 percent of all company mergers fail. The report attributes this to a simple insight: When companies focus on what they’ll get from an acquisition, they‘re less likely to succeed than if they focus on what they’ll give to it.

For example, when Microsoft bought Nokia’s handset business for $7.9 billion in 2014, only to write off 96% of the company the next year, it was hoping to profit off of the smartphone hardware business but had no expertise of its own to offer. It was looking for what it could get, not what it could give.

Companies that merge successfully with another work because the acquiring company has something of value to offer the acquired company—it’s more give than get. For example, when Google took over Android in 2005, it gave Android development expertise the smaller company didn’t have access to otherwise. Berkshire Hathaway is another example; it has a track record of improving the companies it acquires by enhancing its management systems. 

These concepts are discussed in depth in Adam Grant’s book,
Give and Take, which argues that in both business and personal life, people who aim to give to a relationship ironically end up benefiting more from it. This idea dovetails with Sinek’s view that business relationships thrive when the parties involved are looking out for more than their own immediate interests.

Sinek argues that investors and executives would be better off viewing growth as a result of a healthy organization, not a cause of such health. Additionally, they should recognize that growth must have a purpose—your goal shouldn’t be just “to get bigger” for the sake of getting bigger. Growth must serve a larger vision—some ideal that you need size to accomplish. 

A Corporate Social Responsibility Program Is Not a Just Cause  

Sometimes, leaders will have corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs that do things like fund food banks, support walkathons, and allow paid time off so employees can volunteer. They may believe that because CSR programs serve a higher purpose, they are themselves Just Causes. Sinek maintains that all of these initiatives are worthwhile and should be part of any company’s operations, but a true Just Cause centers the company’s existence around a higher purpose—the higher purpose is not a secondary, tacked-on element, as CSR programs often are. Unless the Just Cause is central to a company’s reason for existing and focuses the direction of the CSR program, the company may have CSR programs but at the same time emphasize finite goals and selfish purposes in their main businesses. 

Sinek points out that some leaders say they want to “make money to do good,” in other words, they want to be financially successful and then they’ll give back to the community. However, Sinek argues they should in fact try to “do good while making money”—in other words, reorder the thought to put the “good” first, so that you focus on doing good by treating people well and only secondarily, focus on building a financially strong company. 

The Difficulty of Identifying Sincere CSR Programs

One limitation of CSR programs that Sinek indirectly addresses is the fact that many such programs are little more than virtue signaling, aimed at customers and potential employees who increasingly value corporate responsibility and sustainability. It can be difficult to know, when companies are loudly advertising their CSR programs, which ones are central to a company’s mission and which are merely public relations.  

The problem is compounded by the fact that companies are finding it increasingly beneficial to advertise their CSR. While older studies showed little to no correlation between CSR and profits, more recent studies show significant links between a company’s advertised CSR programs and its performance—for example, when a company advertises itself as a socially responsible firm, it attracts more productive, effective workers at lower wages. Recognizing this, more and more firms are declaring themselves do-gooders, and observers are cautioning that it can be difficult to tell which firms are sincere.  

A Just Cause Requires the Right Leader

Choosing who leads your organization can be the difference between long-term survival or failure. If your Chief Executive Officer (CEO) does not have an infinite mindset, she is not going to lead your company through its infinite game properly. Unfortunately, finding the right leader can be very difficult. 

A report from Harvard Business Review highlights the difficulty of finding the right leader. Research reveals that up to one-half of new CEOs fail within 18 months of taking on the job. This holds true whether or not the CEO was recruited from outside or from within the organization.  

Look for a Chief Vision Officer

Sinek recommends looking for a “CVO” (Chief Vision Officer) rather than a CEO. Other executives—Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer, and so on—have the luxury of being finite-minded, since they are tasked with dealing with specific issues within their departments. But the CEO must focus on the company’s Just Cause and vision above all else. 

The different visionary requirements of a CEO as compared to other executives can lead to problems when a CEO steps down and one of those other executives takes her place. Sometimes, a person who functioned excellently in a more finite role has difficulty adjusting to the infinite mindset needed for the top position, and they lose sight of their Just Cause. 

Simon Sinek: A Just Cause Fuels Your Business

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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