Savage Interview: ethnographer and entrepreneur theorist Simon Sinek

This winter quarter I had the distinct pleasure of spending several weeks with students talking about corporate globalization and neoliberalism. Students may get an opportunity to think about late capitalism in a more hyped-up and celebratory way in their business or development classes but the anthropological take on capitalism and globalization is that it is patently sinister.

Few disciplines have a less friendly relationship with corporations than anthropology. For many, they are evil incarnate, for some they are a necessary evil, and for others they are a source of gainful employment. The outlook and methods anthropologists share with marketers, branders, and other corporate lackeys compounds anthropologists’ unease with corporations. Few contemporary anthropological projects can afford to ignore the role of capitalism, cognitive colonization, culture industries, consumerism, and corporations in the lives of their informants. Despite the tomes dedicated to the anthropology of capitalism, the variability of values and practices within corporations is rarely documented or theorized. Not without its contradictions and hype, the social values and philanthropic practices of social entrepreneurs seems to be catching on throughout that facet of the corporate world engineered to cater to a politically and ecologically conscious American middle class.

Identifying the parameters of this new species of capitalism would be pretty cool so I thought it important to talk with someone trained as an anthropologist and practiced as a corporate ethnographer who is now an entrepreneur theorist for leaders of elite firms. Simon Sinek is English and grew up in Johannesburg. He got a BA in cultural anthropology from Brandeis University and worked at several top ad agencies, before writing his recent book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. I met him at a truly evocative talk he gave at Causecast in Santa Monica earlier this month and got him on the phone while he was in Dallas last week. We talked about social entrepreneurship, leadership, the academic anti-corporate bias, Western urban business cultures, human biology and marketing, manipulative versus authentic branding tactics, relevant anthropology, corporate culture as Culture, William Ury,  benevolent dictatorships versus consensus driven management practices, and the ethnographic imperative to ask why.

A pretty fierce pull quote: “As an ethnographer we are in search of why but we actually ask what.” Simon Sinek

Here’s the audio for the interview with Simon.

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

60 thoughts on “Savage Interview: ethnographer and entrepreneur theorist Simon Sinek

  1. Seth, I don’t know much about the whole Southern ‘pride of culture by ignoring the past’ bit. I’m from South Texas and grew up on the border in a very poor town (poorest per capita in the US), and a 97.9% Mexican American population. I’ve never actually talked about this with any Southerners. I’ve heard the spiel on TV in interviews, and I’m inclined to take people on their word on this, just because it tends to fit with out people deal with cognitive dissonance, which helps to explain how and why people lie to themselves. This is one major aspect of the unconscious nature of culture. There is not a direct connection between the facts of the past and the ethos of the present in a conception of the past. A person can feel pride in the US revolution and the vision of the “Founding Fathers,” even though many of them owned slaves. People can study Mayans and Aztecs with respect, even though they were some brutal empires. We can feel sorry for what happened to the Japanese in WWII even though they enslaved Chinese and Koreans. Wasn’t it you that made a whole case about this? About how history is largely written in a frame of the present? I’m gonna have to say that this is a really good example of domain dependency; again, that’s the inability to apply knowledge that is framed in a way that isn’t ready made for it.

    @ MTBrad, As far as CRS for Congress, I wasn’t singling out any single organization, rather a generalized model for how orgs. function at larger scales. Politicians in general live in information bubbles, and they have so many interests competing for their time, that money often becomes speech. Many actually want to do the right thing, and desperately want to be loved by people (one former politician told me that they didn’t get enough love as children or something). You get the info. you ask for, and you ask for the info. that you already know something about. They don’t have anyone ensuring that they have a broad knowledge of every subject. And, no one is doing that for their constituents that write and call them. The people they are actually responsible to. The dirty secret that Americans ignore is that we basically get what we want. We want unlimited credit and never have to pay it back, and we want cheap gas, and we want the things given to us by empire, and we punish officials that don’t deliver. It’s like a person that doesn’t want to know where a hamburger comes from, i.e., most people.

    Ethically, I can’t really give a lot of details, but here’s a real story that explains what I’m talking about. A local councilman is concerned that land speculators and developers are going to go into a poor area in their district, so they get an ordinance past to control speculation and ensure that the area doesn’t get a bunch of McMansions on the cheap and force people out, i.e., gentrification. But, there are a lot of vacant lots in the neighborhood, and no one likes that, so Habitat for Humanity sets up shop in the area and starts to build homes for people. Happy story right? No. In order to build homes that clients can buy, and comply with the new ordinance, they subdivide larger lots in half and build two homes.

    Now, local residents see this and they don’t know anything about either the councilperson’s intent, or what Habitat is doing. They see this think, “who’s gonna live in those small homes? You can’t have a family in those homes! How can you have a community if you don’t have a family? It’s Hispanics that are gonna move into them and then they’ll move out when they have a big family. You know what it is, that councilman is protecting his own, and pushing us black folk out.” Paraphrased of course. Many of the actual quotes are much worse than that.

    Also quotes like this:

    “up in that part of town, over there, and they built some nice little houses. So, I figured that, if Habitat can treat them people right, then why can’t they treat everybody right? Put a wood house here, and a brick house here. These homes I don’t know what they look like on the inside, they may be nice, but I still say, you drive down the street, if they build four of ‘em on one block they all look the same. That just kind of defeats the purpose; you know what I’m sayin’?”

    Then maybe another councilperson wants to ensure that local minorities get a shot at decent stimulus contracts, and again this is what other poor minorities see:

    “But, if you go down to City Hall and you look whose doing the hiring, then that’s a Mexican doing the hiring, so what does he do? Everybody looks out for their own, but black people. The few black people working there, they have to worry about, ‘if I hire a bunch of black guys, then that’ s gonna look prejudice’, but when they hire, they hire who just look like them and nobody says a dern thing.”

    Everyone is trying to do the right thing, and they don’t even realize how their actions are being misconceived, because there’s no information flow. The information is out there, and officials are trying to get it all out there, and people aren’t getting it, because there is a disconnect between the networks that put out info., and the networks people use to get info. I’m currently trying to fix that. I could really use help, but it seems that other anths. feel that it is beneath them to work with the man.

  2. “Everyone is trying to do the right thing, and they don’t even realize how their actions are being misconceived, because there’s no information flow.”

    “I’ve never actually talked about this with any Southerners. I’ve heard the spiel on TV in interviews, and I’m inclined to take people on their word on this, just because it tends to fit with out people deal with cognitive dissonance, which helps to explain how and why people lie to themselves.”

    1-“cognitive dissonance… people lie to themselves.”
    2-“no information flow.”

    Which is it? It can be both but you make it one or the other depending on your sympathies.

    And you may not have talked to any Southerners about this but I have. Fascinating conversations.

    You’re making a fool out of yourself; but you’re a walking example of every argument I’ve ever made.

    There’s a post up on this page: “Hard Problems in Anthropology”
    The hardest problems are unsolvable, and they’re the ones that deserve the most attention because we need to face them every day. The most important problems are aporias. We are watchers being watched and judges judged. Culture is not a force underlying other peoples lives Rick but the lives of all of us.

  3. “The best argument for leaving others alone in their bizarre beliefs, for being curious but not contemptuous, is the recognition of your own capacity to believe things equally as odd.”

  4. Has that actually ever worked for you Seth? The whole throwing out strings of words together without any context in a kind of psuedo intense way? That emperor is without clothes. I’m a grown up, and don’t play those games.

    “1-”cognitive dissonance… people lie to themselves.”
    2-”no information flow.”

    Which is it? It can be both but you make it one or the other depending on your sympathies.”

    No you make it one of the other depending on the situation and the practice you find yourself in unless Bourdieu was completely full of shit. I think not.

    I guess I have to add that it isn’t just about information flow, because most off the information isn’t there. Where I work, block level info. doesn’t exist, and it’s expensive and time consuming and that’s why I’m doing it. There’s census data, a few survey done here and there every decade, and that’s about it. If you take that whole lotta nothing and aggregate it, then you have an issue with information itself, and the existing information flow.

  5. Bourdieu was full of shit in a lot of ways. “Distinction” was culturally specific: it never applied to the US and applies less and less to an Americanized Europe. Sarko loves Celine Dion etc.
    Bordieu’s Habitus was academic bourgeois. Perhaps you should read Panofsky, where he got the term. He may have been born a postman’s kid but he ended up a high bureaucrat in language and sensibility. From proletarian to anti-aristocrat as bureaucrat, paralleling in perversity the celebration of advertising as art… “because linguistic systems are complex and cool!” Democracy does not necessitate mediocrity but continental intellectuals have never quite figured that out.

    Carl was quoting my own words back to me above and I want to take my own advice but I’m disgusted by arguments against the existence of great art, by mediocre minds who defend the existence of great ideas.

    I’m also hung over: good news at my day job, I just bagged a major client. But it’s my day-job: it’s not art, it’s not poetry and it’s not brilliance in any way, but it’s ok. And it’s not advertising. It’s not the pitch it’s the product (how’s that for a pitch?)

    You can respect a job without becoming a Babbit. You really should follow the links above to my conversation with McCracken.

  6. “Bordieu’s Habitus was academic bourgeois.”

    I followed about 2/3 of all that. I’ve used the concept of habitus and post-structuralism in real life research to understand and explain real life situations and dichotomies. Theory isn’t bourgeois, or proletariat, and having never been a Marxist, I don’t think I’ve every said either of those words in speech, which to me is a pretty accurate symbolic symbol of pretentious middle to middle-upper class kids that got bored and became suedo radicalized. That or just art fags. Neither term are accurate representations of today’s observable world. Those simple dichotomies might have worked in the 19th century, but not today.

    I take issue with certain things that Bourdieu stated, but the basic stuff is pretty solid. That being said, you don’t use a hammer when you need a screw driver, and the theory fits to the question and problem, not the other way around. It’s a poor researcher that has a sparse tool box.

  7. Having said all that, and focusing on the suit aspect. I’ve gone to functions with 3 different sets of clothes before, because I didn’t know which costume would be a better fit for the performance of a dinner party, interview, or whatever…. I have a very nice suit in my closet. Tailored and all and much nicer than the one pictured above, and I’ve never had the opportunity to actually wear it. They guy I was working for in Dallas for a while wanted me to dress down, because I was working in poor neighborhoods. So everyone else had to wear suits, and I’d walk in like a grad. student, no shave, etc… I actually want an excuse to put on my nice suit.

    Shit, when I was in Bali, I had to wear a saroc (wrap around dress) to visit sacred sights. I’m not get pissy about it.

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