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The Wright Brothers, Simon Sinek and Starting with Why


Today celebrates 98 years since The Wright Brothers changed the world forever when they made the very first controlled, sustained flight of a powered aircraft.


In this week’s blog we look at why The Wright Brothers succeeded in their quest and how Simon Sinek’s theory of ‘Why’ was the key to their success.


At the beginning of the twentieth century the race for powered flight had begun. The skies were seen as the next great step for mankind. Simon Sinek in his book `Start with Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action ” draws upon an interesting comparison between the Wright Brothers and a man Samuel Pierpoint Langley.


Essentially, the Wright Brothers and Pierpoint Langley were both in a race to become the first to fly. Nowadays of course, the Wright Brothers are in the history books, synonymous with their achievements in aviation history, whilst most people have never even heard of Pierpoint Langley.


However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Pierpoint Langley was the famous one, with no one having even heard of the Wright Brothers.


Pierpoint Langley was a noted astronomer, secretary of the Smithsonian Museum and very well connected with close friends including Alexander Graham Bell and Andrew Carnegie. Thanks to his connections, Pierpoint Langley was able to capture the imaginations of the ‘great and the good’ of the day with his dreams of powered flight. Indeed, the United States Department of Defence granted him $50,000 to fund his endeavours and his team included some of the best engineers of the day.


Meanwhile, in Dayton, Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright were pursuing the same dream. In stark comparison to Pierpoint Langley, they had no funding or government support, and they relied solely on income from their bicycle shop to fund their dream of flight. Not a single person on their team was a skilled engineer and most did not even have a college education. They had no publicity, and no one knew who they were.


Despite these differences on 17th December 1903 in North Carolina, it was the Wright Brothers who became the first people to take to the skies in a 59 second flight reaching altitudes of 120ft. Pierpoint Langley on the other hand crashed on his first test flight and quickly lost interest in his quest for flight.


But why, despite all the odds being against them, did the Wright Brothers succeed when Pierpoint Langley appeared to have the perfect recipe for success?


According to Simon Sinek their success was solely down to their leadership. The Wright Brothers were leaders, innovators, and importantly they had a cause and a purpose beyond themselves.


They framed their endeavours by asking the question ‘Why?’. The Wright Brothers were excited by the prospect of providing people with a new and ground-breaking mode of transportation. They saw manned flight as a way to change the world.


And that was their ‘Why?’ This was their cause. It was why they pushed themselves and their team. They saw a purpose behind trying to make the impossible possible!


Pierpoint Langley on the other hand was only looking for fame, fortune, and accolades. He never looked at the bigger picture. As soon as he realised, he was not going to be the first person to man a flying machine he simply gave up and quit his venture. He was not interested in improving on the work of the Wright Brothers and was not inspired to produce something better.


In 1903 the Wright Brothers succeeded in their mission because of their passion, and because they had a dream that was bigger than themselves. They had a ‘Why?’


And of course, the rest is history, with the advent of the ‘aviation age’. But it all started on 17th December 1903 when two brothers had a dream that inspired them.


What inspires you? Why do you do what you do? Do you have a dream bigger than yourself? The Wright Brothers might argue that when you do, virtually anything is possible!