Simon Sinek on Pursuing Passion, Purpose, and Challenging the Status Quo in the Non-Profit Dance Field

Editor’s note: Writer, thinker, and motivational speaker Simon Sinek will address Dance/USA’s membership on June 28, 2012, at its annual conference, which takes place this year from June 28-30 in San Francisco. From the Green Room had a few questions for Sinek in advance of his keynote conference address. For information or to register for the conference, visit

From the Green Room: You have worked with arts and non-profit organizations. Can you describe your work with some of those organizations?
Simon Sinek: My message is fundamentally one of service in the fulfillment that we get and in the importance of giving to others. I’ve always been very drawn to those in service, to those in the charity world, to those in the arts and to those in governments and the military as well — people who give of themselves — so it’s not such a stretch. I’m very drawn to people who pursue their passion and sometimes at personal sacrifice. In the case of a dancer, that sacrifice is often financial. Many of them have the choice to go get a desk job and make more money by, yet, the instability is worth it to them because they get to dance. And I have great, great, great admiration for those who devote themselves to work that brings them passion and they do the thing that they love. I’ve done work with the New York City Ballet, I’ve done work with the Joyce Theater, the Harlem School of the Arts, Dance Space in New York City, there’s a whole host of them.
Green Room: Part of your thesis when you work with corporations and business is in asking why we do something. In the dance field, we often seem to know instinctually why we dance. Do you have that sense in working with various dance organizations, that the why is not the central question they need to answer and they have other pressing matters?
Sinek: In the for-profit world, the disconnect is between the purpose and the structure. In the charity world and the non-profit world, you have to be closer aligned to the purpose, so structure is the thing that’s more of a challenge. That said, like anybody, we sometimes become disconnected from the reasons that the organization was founded and why we took the job in the first place. Unfortunately we become mired in the daily grind, so I wouldn’t take it for granted that just because and organization is not-for-profit or purpose-driven that that purpose necessarily stays front and center and, more than that, I wouldn’t take it for granted that the leadership is necessarily in articulating and leading the charge. I think that some organizations are better than others, like in anything, and that over the course of time sometimes they goes hunting for something and this is where the problems can start to arise.

Green Room: Are there remedies or practices that organizations can take that can draw them back to the original or founding purpose?
Sinek: Well it all goes back to the leadership. What a leader is supposed to do is to give us a sense of true north, of why we even showed up in the first place. When leaders start talking about money, when leaders start talking about time frames, when leaders start talking about metrics, and when leaders start talking about all this stuff, it’s very easy for us to feel disconnected from the purpose at hand. It goes back to leadership. Leaders should be able to articulate why the organization was founded in the first place. What was the cause that goes beyond the product that is sold or the product that is performed? Leaders should be able to articulate why the organization was founded in the first place. What was the cause that goes beyond the product that is sold or the product that is performed? There must be a reason why we need another one. There are so many dance companies and so many theaters why do we need another one. There’s usually some specific and unique perspective around which that company was formed in the first place. It’s that unique human challenge that someone overcame, that someone looked to, that someone was inspired by, that origin story, that is the thing that needs to be talked about. It’s the legacy and the heritage and that’s very often forgotten.

Green Room: That’s a powerful point to make at this moment of evolution in the dance world. We’re seeing the disappearance of our 20th century founding generations. What are your thoughts on where we go from here?
Sinek: I would say to that, why wasn’t there another group lined up behind them? All of these great choreographers, those pioneers — your Balanchines, your Martha Grahams — my question is how come there wasn’t anybody in the wings waiting to take over, to re-pioneer? My question is how come there aren’t any new pioneers? Perhaps dance, for better or worse, is becoming too much of an enterprise, too much of a business, where dance companies spend too much time trying to raise money and not enough time challenging the status quo.

The reality is that great pioneers can’t do it alone. George Balanchine had Lincoln Kirstein working in the background. All of these great pioneers, all of these great visionaries, always had someone behind them building the organization while they were out challenging the conventional wisdom. I think in the modern day and age we see a lot of young talented choreographers who are doing it all themselves. They’re chief cook and bottle washer. Not only does that suck the life, the energy out of that individual, but the fact of the matter is they can’t do it. They’re visionary creative people and they need that Lincoln Kirstein, they need that business man, they need that person who believes in their vision and is willing to commit to helping them build it in the background. I think that’s part of the reason: Somebody trying to do it all themselves is a fool’s game, it’s a race to zero.

Green Room: What would you advise this cadre of young choreographers who are juggling the books, the company management, and the choreography? What would you tell them?
Sinek: I would want them to devote themselves to their art. Just because someone has a vision and has a perspective and a choreography that they feel compelled to deliver to the world, doesn’t mean they know how to run a dance company. And what’s most important is that they’re choreographing. They can hire dancers as they need them. They can set things on existing companies and they should go out there and choreograph and present their work where ever they can. As long as they keep talking about what they believe and they keep producing work, regardless of what they’re sitting on, at some point someone who understands them and knows how to do these things will come to them and say, I believe in what you’re doing and I’m inspired by your work, how can I help. Then it becomes important for the artist to say here’s what I need. And it becomes a team. I think there’s an obsession among young choreographers that they have to form their own dance companies. Says who? Where is it written that if you have a choreographic vision you have to form your own company? Then you cease to be choreographers and you have to become a company administrator. If the vision is to choreograph, then choreograph. Like I said, you can hire dancers as you need them. You can set things on other companies. You can be a guest artist. There are some brilliant, brilliant choreographers who are doing just that.

Green Room: Let’s look at the other side of the coin: our administrators and managers, our co-collaborators in the field. What advice would you give them?
Sinek: What’s the reason that you’re so devoted in this company? It’s one thing if you can say, I love dance or I used to be a dancer — a lot of them use to be. But just like a dancer would dance for free to work with a choreographer who inspires them, so, too, should an administrator work for an artistic director who inspires them. This is a labor of love and if you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be laboring in it. I think too many times the administrator knows what they’re doing and the artistic director knows what they’re doing, but to actually love and respect each other — sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But I think it has to be that those who choose to run dance companies, dance organizations, have to be absolutely devoted, not just to the person or the organization, but absolutely devoted to the cause of the organization. Like I said, this has to be a visceral experience. If it’s not visceral, how can you be expected to work with blood, sweat, and tears? This is when you start seeing organizations become stale. Everybody is just kind of showing up and it’s just kind of job. Yes, they love dance, they love the medium, but it’s just a job. They like it, they like it, but do they love it anymore. I’m not so sure that most can say they still love it. I think it becomes a grind for most. And when something becomes a grind, we have a problem.

Green Room: It’s interesting to look back at the founding generation and their collaborators and how they did it. There was no such thing as arts management or an MBA in non-profit structures, for example. In recent years we’ve created this new field of arts managers. Is that to our benefit or our detriment?
Sinek: When you start treating a creative pursuit as a business, then it becomes about money. It’s the difference between a film and a movie. A film is designed to tell a story; a movie is designed to make money. It’s like a Broadway show: can we compare Pina Bausch to “The Producers”? One is a creative pursuit that may or may not make money, the other one is a business enterprise and it’s using art to make money. One is clearly entertainment, the other is clearly art. And though one may incorporate the art, the purpose is to make money. People who invest in Broadway shows are looking to get a return on their investment; people who invest in Pina Bausch are looking to see her art performed. That’s the difference. As soon as we start putting MBAs into arts management then we start turning it into a business, then we have people who come in to manage numbers and not produce art. You can see the same problem n the hospital world: 5 percent of hospital administrators actually have any medical background. So the reason there are 250,000 accidental deaths a year in our hospitals is that people who run hospitals don’t care about the doctors and the nurses who are taking care of people. It’s that simple. As soon as you turn a people enterprise into a numbers enterprise, in the case of a hospital, people die, in the case of an arts organization, the art will suffer.
As soon as you turn a people enterprise into a numbers enterprise, in the case of a hospital, people die, in the case of an arts organization, the art will suffer.

Green Room: We’re in a tough economic period right now. Dance is often the canary in the coal mine as far as where we might be headed. Are there certain strategies that dancers, dance organizations should be doing at this point while we’re still struggling with the recession?
Sinek: Yes. Stop talking about it. Everybody’s a victim, you know. At no fault to anybody, when times are tough, your discretionary spending has got to be the first thing that gets cut. You and I are exactly the same: If you and I are having tough times at home, we’re canceling our ballet subscription. So, if people are scaling back, especially large organizations that carry a lot of overhead, then they need to scale back too. That doesn’t mean they need to stop, that doesn’t mean they need to go bankrupt. What they need to do is make temporary adjustments, like everybody else. It doesn’t mean they have to make everybody suffer. They just might have to scale back a bit: If they were doing 100 performances a year, they might need to do 50 performances a year. But people need to stop complaining about it. Even in good times the arts complain. What I admire about choreographers, artists and dancers: if you look at a dancer, a dancer who is working as a waiter or waitress somewhere. He’s not making a lot of money, he lives in a rinky-dink apartment with roommates became that’s what he can afford, yet, still he manages to make ends meet so he can dance. Let’s look to them and admire them. It’s their passion that drives them. So arts organizations should take a cue from those who are so passionate to work for them: which is that if it is the passion that drives, then us we will overcome all problems and all obstacles, if we work together. If we do not play the victim we can produce with what we have, as opposed to trying to do more with less.

Green Room: What was some of the best advice that you ever received?
Sinek: I’ve received so much advice over the years and some of it I learned the hard way. The biggest lesson I learned is that I don’t have to know everything and I certainly don’t have to pretend that I do. Especially people in management of an organization often feel that they need to know all the answers and if they don’t, I think they feel that they need to pretend that they do. The fact is that if you think you know all the answers, or you’re pretending that you do, no one will think that they need to help you, because they don’t. so the humility of being able to ask for help and understand that our success is a team sport and that if we work together, not as management and artists, but as one group of people committed to the same cause, then that in itself is the most empowering thing in the world.

Simon Sinek believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together. Described as “a visionary thinker with a rare intellect,” Sinek teaches leaders and organizations how to inspire people. With a bold goal to help build a world in which the vast majority of people go home every day feeling fulfilled by their work, Sinek is leading a movement to inspire people to do the things that inspire them. A trained ethnographer and author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Sinek has held a life-long curiosity for why people and organizations do the things they do. Fascinated by the leaders and companies that make the greatest impact in the world, Sinek has discovered some remarkable patterns of how they think, act and communicate. He has devoted his life to sharing his observations in order to help leaders and organizations inspire action. Sinek is best known for discovering his theory of the “Golden Circle,” a naturally occurring pattern grounded in the biology of human decision making, which explains why we are inspired by some people, leaders, messages, and organizations over others.

Sinek’s unconventional and innovative views on business and leadership have attracted international attention and have earned him invitations to meet with leaders and organizations in a wide array of industries including Microsoft, Dell, Intel, Chanel, the United States Military, members of the United States Congress, the ambassadors of Bahrain and Iraq, multiple government agencies and entrepreneurs. Sinek has also had the honor of presenting his ideas at the United Nations, to the senior leadership of the United States Air Force and to the senior leaders of NASA. Sinek speaks around the globe and has commented for local and national press, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, FastCompany, CMO Magazine, NPR and BusinessWeek. Sinek is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, writes his own blog,, and makes regular guest appearances on MSNBC’s Your Business, among others. The talk he gave at his first TEDx event, “How Great Leaders Inspire,” is one of the most shared TED Talks on Sinek is an adjunct staff member of the RAND Corporation, one of the most highly regarded think tanks in the world, where he advises on matters of military innovation and planning. He is also active in the arts and not-for-profit world, working with the Education for Employment Foundation to help create opportunities for young men and women in the Middle East. When not in hotels, he lives in New York where he teaches graduate-level strategic communications at Columbia University.


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