Why Do Leaders Eat Last?


Have you ever failed in a leadership role? If not, then have you seen your boss or lead failing in their role?

If you’ve seen it, then you’ve probably seen them doing absurd things which won’t benefit the company or organization, but themselves and their egos.

The worst part is they don’t even know it. They’ve created a culture where feedback is lacking and everyone is just watching their own back, not looking out for the entire group. I’ve been there in the past, and if you haven’t – lucky you!

Simon Sinek has written excellent books and given fascinating talks about leadership. His book ‘Leaders Eat Last’ is one of my favorites on the subject.

By bringing a lot of real-life examples of excellent and not-so-excellent organizational cultures, he shows that achieving a great culture takes time and effort, and it’s not something you can achieve overnight.

‘Leaders Eat Last’ is Not Just a Metaphor

Do you trust a politician before an election, when they make all of their promises?

Trust isn’t formed overnight (or right before elections). If we (ever) trust a politician, we trust them because we’ve observed their behavior for several years and we know they deliver on their promises.

Obama saying politics is just a big mess

Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Whether it be their time, money, or energy, or even food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last. And this is what creates trust.

We cannot tell people to trust us and we can’t demand that they cooperate, as the politicians often do. These come as the results of feeling safe and trusted among the people we work with. Sinek brings a good example for this: Would you marry someone after your first date?

Even if you really liked the first date, you’d be crazy to do it. You couldn’t genuinely say “I trust them” after your first date. Forming trust is a complicated process where your best friend is time.

Trust is the cornerstone to good and effective leadership, and thankfully some organizations have figured this out. The notion of ‘leaders eat last’ originates from the United States Marine Corps, who need to have an exceptionally trusting culture in order to succeed in their missions.

When U.S. Marines gather to eat, the most junior Marines are always served first and the most senior are served last. Marine leaders are expected to eat last as they understand the true price of leadership – it’s the willingness to place the needs of others above your own.

The greatest leaders truly care about the people they are privileged to lead. But this privilege has a price.

The Cost of Leadership

Those who work the hardest to help others succeed will be seen by a group as a leader. Being the one willing to sacrifice time and energy so that others may gain is a prerequisite for leadership.

Studies have shown that leaders have overall lower stress levels than those who work for them. However, as said, the advantages of leadership come with a cost.

Man asking 'how much'?

The cost of leadership is self-interest. When a group faces a threat from the outside, we expect the leader to take the blow. We expect them to protect us, to be the first ones to run towards the danger in order to keep us safe.

Safety Above All

If they fail to keep us safe and don’t offer us constant protection from danger, they lose our trust. Think of how offended we become when we hear about insane bonuses for investment bankers or CEOs.

It doesn’t have much to do with the numbers. It has to do with them not being able to offer protection for their people.

There have been countless examples of CEOs being given a huge raise, just before a lot of employees are laid off. This just doesn’t fit well with human understandings of trust and loyalty. If we give a person a raise, we expect them to lead, serve and protect the people, not do the exact opposite. 

‘We accuse them of greed and excess only when we feel they have violated the very definition of what it means to be a leader.’

Simon Sinek
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Circle of Safety

The world around us is a dangerous place. It’s filled with things which could make our lives miserable. In older times, you could be killed by a wild animal. Today, the dangers we have to confront are different, some of them real and some of them perceived.

We try to avoid all sorts of stresses today inside organizations: humiliation, isolation, feeling stupid or useless etc. The danger we feel within an organization is controllable and it should be the goal of leadership to create a culture free of danger from each other.

And this should be done by giving people a sense of belonging, an empathic and trustful culture, and the power to make decisions. All these things combined create a ‘Circle of Safety’.

“By creating a Circle of Safety around the people in the organization, leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organization from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities.”

Simon Sinek

Without a Circle of Safety, people are forced to spend too much time and energy protecting themselves from each other’.

Picture of circle of safety. Outside the circle is danger. Inside is safety.
Circle of Safety. Source: Simon Sinek – Leaders Eat Last

When the circle is strong, we naturally share ideas, express opinions, and eventually cooperate. These combine to be the cornerstone to innovation.

When we’re constantly afraid of back-stabbing, we keep to ourselves and avoid interaction. Trust and innovation can never form in this type of culture.

The Chemical Reaction: Oxytocin and Cortisol

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is our favorite chemical. It’s by our brain when we feel deep trust and friendship. It’s the feeling of safety, a feeling that someone will protect you when times get rough.

Without oxytocin, we wouldn’t have empathy and we’d be unable to form strong bonds and friendships. We wouldn’t even be capable of loving our own children without it.

The more we learn to trust someone, the more oxytocin flows in our veins. After a while, we’ve discovered that we’ve formed a strong bond with this person.

Man hugging a woman and saying: "I'll take care of you, okay?"
Oxytocin in a gif

The trust we create allows us to be vulnerable and hope that our colleagues/partners will watch our backs, and this gives us a feeling of belonging. Over time, we feel that we’re part of the Circle of Safety.

Cortisol

Sadly, a lot of workplaces are filled with this chemical. Cortisol warns us that something is wrong. It heightens our senses for possible danger. Cortisol shouldn’t remain in our systems for a long period of time.

It should leave when we feel the threat has passed. If it stays in our internal systems for longer, it will cause damage as we’re living with constant anxiety and fear.

As if working in such an environment isn’t already bad enough, cortisol inhibits the release of oxytocin, the empathy chemical. Therefore, if cortisol is flowing in our blood, we’ll likely be nastier to our peers or colleagues, as our body is in constant guarding mode, ready for attack.

But just because we can adapt to high levels of cortisol (humans can adapt to almost everything), this doesn’t mean it’s normal. If we experience it for too long, we start to break down – it’s not just bad for the organizational culture, but also for our health.

Cortisol Causes Health Issues

Besides causing stress and anxiety, high levels of cortisol in our blood create high blood pressure and decrease our cognitive ability. On top of this, it takes a lot of energy from us to get used to the cortisol in our blood, so our bodies turn off nonessential functions like digestion, growth and our immune system.

If all your mornings look like this, you’re probably working in a high-cortisol environment.

During cortisol bursts, the immune system totally shuts down, potentially causing dangerous health problems.

Therefore, a good company culture can give us a few (or even tens of) extra years to live, whereas a cortisol-filled culture will leave us stressed and reduce our life span (Sinek brings out a lot of statistics in the book about our worsening health, much of it related to workplace stress).

The environment we work in and the way we treat each other REALLY matters. And leaders can do a lot to change it.

Millennials, Again.

Every story has two sides. I wrote an earlier post focused on how to lead millennials, and here I’m going to focus on what Sinek says millennials can do to give their best at work, to make the oxytocin flow instead of cortisol.

It’s not just leaders of organizations that need to know how to lead well (although it’s important), but millennials who should also know how to make themselves “leadable”, as it’s the basis to cooperation.

Nobody wants to hire or maintain a whiny-ass who only makes demands. You as a millennial probably have some demands for your work environment, but you also need to be able to take responsibility and get your sh*t together on a daily basis.

Sinek points out 5 things millennials should do at work to reap the benefits of a good culture.

1. Solve Your Own Problem

If you’re faced with a problem, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your boss can’t help you, don’t just quit working on the problem. In most cases, Google can’t help you either when solving complex problems.

That’s when you should reach out to your old colleagues, friends or other people at the company who could help you. It’s also an excellent way to form new bonds – approach someone in the company you don’t know, and you’ll be amazed by people’s willingness to help (if it’s of course not a fully cortisol-run company).

2. Push to Completion

It’s easy to start new tasks and projects, but it’s harder to end them. I myself am having trouble with this the most. The real completers start thinking about other ways to solve the problem if their current way isn’t working.

Man saying 'let's get the thing done'
Be that guy!

They don’t just say “I emailed him, but he didn’t respond” when trying to solve a problem. This also creates an opportunity to create new meaningful relationships, and when it’s the next time to solve the problem, they already know how to approach it.

3. Beg for Criticism

Being recognized and valued for our strengths is important. But real growth happens when we hear feedback on how we can grow. Real learnings happen when things go wrong or when we mess up.

Simon Sinek asks his team at the end of every project what he could have done better, and the team tells each other what mistakes they should look out for the next time.

Don’t assume everyone knows how to give positive and negative feedback. Some people aren’t good at either. People can be a bit too aggressive or blunt but try to look past this. Try to understand the core of their feedback and then move on from there.

4. Sacrifice Credit

Leaders should publicly acknowledge the hard work specific people have done to complete a project, but there is more to it when it comes to giving credit.

There is something magical about being a shadow player who helps others to look good. The feeling we get when someone succeeded partly (or mostly) due to our work has some humble magic to it.

But there’s more – when others see you experiencing a real joy in being a shadow player, the more they’ll rely on you and trust you. And this can go a long way in creating a workplace where oxytocin is flowing.

5. Cold Turkey Your Phone

Sinek talks a lot about our digital addiction and how it stops us from forming deep and meaningful relationships. Besides it hurting our relationships, it decreases our ability to do deep work. To get rid of your phone addiction, he recommends the following

  • No cell phones on any meal table. Talk to the person you’re having a meal with.
  • No phones at meetings (taking notes on paper has proven to be 73% more effective)
  • No cell phones in the bedroom
  • Leave your phone at home when you go out on a date with your spouse

All these suggestions help to form deep and meaningful relationships, which release oxytocin in our blood. If you want to reduce your stress levels or anxiety, leave your phone at home more often and TALK to people around you instead.

Conclusions

Creating a good organizational culture where oxytocin flows is time-consuming. It requires cooperation, trust and empathy. We hear too many stories of companies where cortisol is flowing, mostly due to poor leadership.

The cost of leadership is high, and it shouldn’t be treated as a reward where you can just sit back and enjoy the ride, but as an additional responsibility to help people around you succeed. True leadership happens when you’re able to place the needs of others above your own.

I highly recommend the book, to all current and future leaders. All the thoughts in this article originate from Sinek’s book.

Simon SinekLeaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t

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