In Chapter 11 of 20 in his 2011 Capture Your Flag interview with host Erik Michielsen, author and leadership expert Simon Sinek shares how he has found lasting fulfillment working with the United States government and military. Interfacing with committed individuals dedicated to defending, protecting, and serving the country offers Sinek a personal impression that changes his life. He recounts a story engaging a wounded warrior at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany and offering a "Token of Inspiration". Simon Sinek is a trained ethnographer who applies his curiosity around why people do what they do to teach leaders and companies how to inspire people. He is the author of "Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action". Sinek holds a BA degree in cultural anthropology from Brandeis University.
Erik Michielsen: What do you find most fulfilling about working with military and government to serve your country?
Simon Sinek: Look, these are people who show up to work, and who decided to do that for a living, decided to do that with their lives, not to get rich. When I get to speak to, or work with the military, or those in government, not a single person there showed up to get rich. None of them, zero. Whether they become disillusioned or not within their careers is a different story, but they showed up with a desire to serve their country. And to be able to give them anything that helps them be better at their jobs, that helps them be better at protecting the country or helping develop better healthcare, it doesn’t matter, is perhaps the most fulfilling work I do. If all I did was get to work with government and military for the rest of my life I would be extremely happy. It’s an amazing feeling to do something that matters.
Erik Michielsen: When was the first time you felt that way?
Simon Sinek: The first time I felt that way … I got to go to the Pentagon for the first time a few years ago. And just walking the halls, you’re pretty struck by it, you know? And I think D.C. as a town does that as well, but they also deal in power. But when you go, when you walk the halls of the Pentagon and you all these people walking around in various uniforms who have committed their lives to a life of service, it’s pretty humbling, it’s pretty humbling.
Erik Michielsen: Last year, you had a chance to speak to a large group in Germany. Tell me more about that.
Simon Sinek: Last year, I got to visit Ramstein Air Force base, Spangdahlem Air Force base and Aviano Air Force base in Italy. And over the course of my week with them, I spoke to thousands of troops. One room alone was close to a thousand. It was amazing. But perhaps the most powerful and moving experience I had was at Ramstein. One of the things that Ramstein serves as is the sort of stopping point to the Middle East. Most of the troops and material going to Afghanistan or Iraq or coming back go through Ramstein.
So it’s a pretty busy, big base. And one of the missions is to return home the wounded warriors who are brought to Germany for treatment in the hospitals there, and when they can come home they will bring those wounded warriors home. And part of my tour was to go through the facility where they – sort of the weigh station as they sort of were taken out to the plane – and so we were taken around there and shown the facility. And then we went out onto the flight line where we saw a C17, which is a big Air Force cargo plane configured to bring wounded warriors home. You know they had bunks and they had medical equipment in there, and they loaded up say about 15 to 20 wounded warriors – some who were ambulatory and some were carried on stretchers.
My job was to stand there and observe, that was my job. And I couldn’t, it was incredibly powerful, and I stepped forward without asking permission and went to each one of them and said the exact same thing. I said, “I’m visiting from back home, I’m a civilian, and I just want to say thank you for what you do for us.” And I paid them a token of inspiration, which are these tokens I carry with me. And I paid each of them and I said the exact same thing to each of them: “My name is Simon, I’m a civilian from back home and I just want to say thank you to you guys for what you do for us” and I pay them a token.
And there was this one young guy who was lying on a stretcher, who was under a blanket strapped in. He had a tube hanging out of every orifice, oxygen over his mouth, and I turned to him and he sort of looked over to me from his stretcher, and I said the same thing, “My name is Simon, I’m a civilian, I’m from back home and I just wanted to pay you this token of inspiration to say thank you to you for what you do for us.” And I held up the token and I said, “I’ll give it to somebody else to hold for you for when you get back home.” Because clearly he was under this blanket in this stretcher all strapped in, and a hand came out of the side of this blanket, right? And I put the token in his hand, right? And he grips it tight, right? And puts his hand back in the blanket. And we never spoke a word, and of course I was, you know, bawling.
And I learned something that day, I mean, that day changed me. You know? I don’t have much of a right to complain about my bad days, you know? And even when I was there that week, I remember the jet lag hit me very hard and I’d be falling asleep at dinners and they kept asking me to do more and more and more stuff. And the old me would have said, “you know I’m gonna decline I have to take a rest.” And, I said yes to absolutely everything and pushed my way through all of it. And you know, you meet these young men and women who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way for no other reason than they believe in something bigger than themselves, and you get to meet them. It’s, uh, it changes you. It changes you.