Dec 17th, 2019

The Wright Brothers: What Simon Sinek Missed

One hundred and sixteen years ago today, the Wright Brothers made their first flight.  This is what Simon Sinek, and others, missed.

First the Wright Brothers.  Wilbur, the elder, and Orville arrived at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina through the advice of Joseph Dosher, of the National Weather Service.  They had written the Weather Service asking for the windiest places in America.  They desired a lot of wind and the sands of Kitty Hawk provided it in abundance. It also provided a soft-landing surface for a planned landing, or crash, should it occur.

Wilbur (L) & Orville

They had arrived in Kitty Hawk several years earlier, honing their aeronautical skills flying gliders off the sand dunes.  On this day, December 17, they were going to try powered flight, again, in their heavier than air flying machine.  They had crashed several days earlier. 

Due to a coin flip, Orville won the honor of being the first to attempt to fly this day.  Several lifeguards helped carry the craft from the makeshift hangar in which the Wrights operated while in the dunes.  Four men and one boy were in attendance.

Kill Devil Hill was the precise location where the rail track lay at Kitty Hawk.  Orville rested, belly first–like a sled rider, in their flying machine.  Down the rail he rumbled, Wilbur steadied the wing, then it happened, the Wright Flyer I went airborne.  For the next 12 seconds over 120 feet Orville Wright flew the first heavier than air flying machine.

The Wright Flyer I flew three more times that day.  While returning the craft to the hanger, a gust of wind caught the wing.  The aircraft tumbled across the beach, badly damaged, never to fly again.  But they had done it, they had flown!

Second Simon Sinek.  Simon Sinek is a well know thought leader in the business world.  His TED talks have been seen by millions.  Sinek has a charismatic speaking style that grabs the hearer’s attention.  He makes powerful points and then provided anecdotes to back them up.  Sinek has a well-earned reputation.

I commend Sinek for both his speaking style and his points, they are very helpful.  However, where I take exception, is that his anecdotal stories sometimes fall short in accuracy.  This flaw does not necessarily invalidate his powerful point, but I believe it certainly detracts from his message.  Such is the case in, perhaps, his most popular talk, Know Your Why


In the talk, Sinek contrasts the Wright Brothers to Samuel Pierpont Langley.  Langley had assembled a large team and garnered large sums of United States Government funds to build the first airplane.  One of his last attempts at being first, ended in the craft going nose first into the Potomac River on December 8.  Langley failed, whereas as the self-funded, private duo of the Wright Brothers succeeded.  That should tell us something of the efficacy of large government programs.

Langley’s craft on the Potomac

More germane to this blog is Sinek’s point that Langley and his team were in it for the riches.  Sinek says the Wright Brothers and their people/team were in it for the belief that it would change the course of the world.  This is where Sinek slides.  The Wright Brothers had no team, they had no people.  They were the team. 

Granted, their mechanic Charlie Taylor had made the engine on the craft, and their sister, Katharine, would later win over the high society circles of Europe during Wilbur’s tour of France in 1908.  But for now, there was not a team.  It was simply Wilbur and Orville Wright.

It is this day, we salute the brothers for their perseverance, ingenuity, and determination to be the first to master heavier than air flight.  Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, December 17, 1903.

Langley has an Air Force Base named after him, while the Wright Brothers are famous, world-wide. 

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