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Leaders Eat Last - Book Review

1 June 2015
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

"Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together, and Others Don't" is a book by Simon Sinek, renowned for his bestseller "Start with Why" and his status as a well-known TED speaker. Published in 2014, the book delves into the intricate realm of leadership, specifically addressing the behaviors required for a leader to guide their organization to success confidently. The book's central thesis asserts that, for an organization to thrive, its primary focus should be on its employees and customers rather than solely prioritizing stakeholders and financial gain.

Here's an overview of the book's key themes:

  1. Understanding people as physiological beings

  2. Exploring the essence of leadership

  3. Creating a protective environment

  4. Examining group dynamics

  5. Setting priorities

  6. Emphasizing the significance of teaching others (Stage 12)

While there are plenty of books on leadership, this work offers a unique perspective and flavor that enhances the discourse. I gained profound insight from this book that had previously eluded articulation: "Profitability is a means, not an end." This fundamental idea holds for every leader and organization, emphasizing understanding one's purpose beyond financial gains.

Understanding people as physiological beings

Humans are fundamentally physiological beings, and our capacity for evolution and change over time distinguishes us from many other species. This transformation isn't solely behavioral; it is also governed by various chemicals that play a vital role in our performance as individuals and as members of society. Here are some essential chemicals that significantly impact our behavior:

E - Endorphins: Endorphins, categorized among "personal" chemicals, generate a sense of euphoria in the human body. Their primary role is to mask pain, which becomes particularly evident during activities like running. Endorphins can become addictive, propelling us to more significant achievements and pushing boundaries beyond what onlookers may comprehend. Our ability to maintain a strong work ethic and invest substantial effort is primarily attributed to endorphins.

D - Dopamine: Dopamine is another "personal" chemical that contributes to our well-being by providing a sense of gratification when we progress. Dopamine isn't just released upon completing a task and during its execution as we experience ongoing progress. This is why documenting our goals is often recommended, as it enhances our perception of progress, ultimately motivating us to achieve more—the scale of the goal and the effort invested correlate with the level of dopamine released. Dopamine greatly influences our capacity to set and pursue goals at work.

S - Serotonin: Serotonin is the first among the "social" chemicals. It fosters feelings of respect when others take pride in us and show respect or when we take pride in someone significant to us. Serotonin enhances our confidence and sense of belonging, compelling us to support and empower our children, employees, and those we mentor. It drives us to work diligently, making those under our care proud of our achievements. Serotonin ensures that we look after those within our responsibility and reciprocate for those who care for us.

O - Oxytocin: Oxytocin, another "social" chemical, is the guardian of love. It fosters friendship, love, and trust, offering enduring connection. Oxytocin takes time to flow through our bodies, but when it arrives, it lingers. The more time we spend with someone, the more open we become to them. Oxytocin influences our ability to trust others and feel connected within a group, fostering our loyalty to it. This chemical plays a pivotal role in forming social bonds of love and trust, not only for the recipient of trust but also for observers who witness generous actions.

In addition to these four crucial positive chemicals, there is one less favorable chemical:

C - Cortisol: Cortisol is associated with tension and stress, typically experienced during times of danger. While it's supposed to dissipate when the threat subsides, prolonged feelings of insecurity in the workplace can lead to excessive cortisol production, even when no tangible danger exists. This harms the organization and negatively impacts people's health, as supported by research.

While several other chemicals influence our behavior, these five are purposefully highlighted. Their descriptions shed light on our behavior as individuals and guide leaders to comprehend the actions they must take concerning individual workers and their role within a social context as part of a group. A successful leader must cultivate an environment that inspires employees, stimulates the release of these chemicals, and ensures it's for the right reasons—striking the right balance among these four components benefits employees and the organization's performance.

Exploring the essence of leadership

Leadership commences with the presence of a leader. As social beings, we naturally seek structure and hierarchy, searching for someone to assume the role of a leader. Even when we are not the leader, the mere presence of one instills confidence in us. We look up to the leader, expecting exemplary conduct.

Sinek's introduced leadership concept highlights the leader's role as a public messenger and a servant. When a leader sets a personal example and genuinely serves the public they are accountable for, it earns them unwavering support. The organization then unites to propel the leader and their vision, thus achieving its objectives.

A leader plays a central role in shaping the organizational culture. However, they can also emerge as a product of an existing culture, in which case they must exercise vigilance to ensure that it is genuinely positive, supportive, and conducive to the organization's success.

Leaders are responsible for educating their employees about the rules and equipping them with the skills to implement these guidelines. Subsequently, leaders must allow their subordinates the autonomy to act independently. According to Sinek, leadership isn't solely about enforcing rules and procedures; it also involves setting a personal example, even when rules need to be challenged or bent for the greater good, prioritizing the well-being of the public and the organization over personal gain. The leader's capacity to discern such junctures garners trust, guiding everyone forward, even when the path appears uncertain.

A leader should take every possible measure to facilitate the success of those under their purview. Rather than focusing on self-aggrandizement or maintaining an imposing image, the leader's objective should be to enable every subordinate to thrive and contribute to the organization's success. This is achieved through guidance, knowledge transfer, and resource allocation, ensuring all employees have the necessary tools to reach their goals and advance the organization's objectives.

Moreover, a leader must uphold honesty and instill a culture of integrity within the organization. Mere declarations of honesty are insufficient; trust is built over time through consistent acts of integrity, especially when disagreements arise. A culture of integrity is not dictated but transmitted from the leader to their employees, permeating the organization.

Lastly, the leader's role includes steering everyone toward a shared goal, transcending mere profitability. This shared objective serves as a unifying force, rallying everyone to invest collective effort and energy for its achievement.

Creating a protective environment

There's no need for an extensive discussion to emphasize the importance of an organization providing a secure environment for its employees. At the core of this imperative is creating a familial atmosphere within the organization, where the leader is seen as a parent who treats their employees as their children. This parental approach paves the way for fostering a safe environment. According to Sinek, this implies never resorting to employee termination. Just as parents nurture and support their children, even in the face of initial shortcomings, the leader's stance toward their employees should be the same.

The leader's responsibility is to instill a profound sense of belonging among the employees. To achieve this, the leader must cultivate an environment within the organization that is free from threats. This includes external risks, which the leader mitigates, and internal hazards that may originate within the organization. In this secure environment, employees are free from the burdens of worry, stress, and pressure, enabling them to channel most of their energy toward their work and the advancement of the organization. When employees perceive their environment as safe, they feel comfortable admitting mistakes and addressing issues promptly and transparently, thus averting or more swiftly resolving crises. Enhanced communication becomes possible, facilitating the organization's expedited progress towards success.

Employees have expectations of their leader, anticipating protection, establishing a secure environment, and nurturing an organizational culture in which it's acceptable to acknowledge mistakes, free from fear of colleagues and superiors. Each organization determines its shared objectives for defense and the goals it collectively strives to achieve. For a small company, it might revolve around shared survival, while in a larger organization, the focus might shift to growth.

Examining group dynamics

Collaboratively, as a group, we consistently achieve more than we can as individuals. This principle should serve as a cornerstone guiding an organization's conduct. The world's progress has been primarily propelled by combining various forces rather than solely by individual brilliance.

The collective power and cooperation within a group enhance our performance and contribute to our success. A deeper understanding of one another fosters stronger social bonds among people, consequently fortifying the group's cohesion. As social connections grow, so does the loyalty to the group and the organization. Increased loyalty, in turn, positively impacts the bottom line.

Building relationships commences with the mindset of the manager. A manager who is not confined to their office but actively engages in meaningful, in-person dialogues with employees. A manager who advocates for face-to-face interactions between team members and encourages their collaboration, even when disagreements arise, as mentioned earlier.

In a team, when a member departs, their unique insights do not vanish entirely. The organization can continue progressing, even if the departing employee is highly valued.

In conclusion, the group serves as a wellspring of company strength and resilience. It is an invaluable asset that should be considered.

Setting priorities

Many managers opt for a numerical approach to steer their organizations. However, the more management relies on numerical data, the less emphasis there is on employee well-being. Managers often prioritize stakeholders and the need to appease them, which may lead to short-term focus at the expense of people and their needs. Research has shown that when confronted with statistics, we are less emotionally impacted than when hearing an individual's personal story. The same holds for managers. Therefore, Sinek argues that leaders should shift their priorities to emphasize concern for employees and customers over mere numbers and stakeholders.

To effectively uphold these priorities, the following strategies are recommended:

  1. Direct Interaction: Leaders should engage with people directly rather than relying solely on paperwork. Encouraging interactions among employees is also crucial.

  2. Manageable Scale: Managing within a scale that allows for meaningful relationships is advisable. In more extensive settings, this might be up to 150 people.

  3. Invest Time and Attention: Leaders should invest their time and attention in people, not just monetary compensation.

  4. Long-Term Focus: Patience and a long-term perspective are essential.

While it is evident that profitability is necessary for sustained business operation, it should be regarded as a means to an end, not the end itself. These priorities foster a sense of security among employees, enabling leaders to make sound ethical and professional decisions while guiding the group toward realizing their vision and objectives.

Sinek suggests that customers will have a strong affinity for a company whose employees genuinely love it. Therefore, building this internal commitment is where it all begins, laying the foundation for lasting success.

Emphasizing the significance of teaching others (Stage 12)

The last recommendation, as outlined by Sinek, diverges from the previous ones. It doesn't directly pertain to a specific leadership trait but underscores its importance through behavior assimilation. To enhance your ability to assimilate these principles, Sinek advises that you also instruct and accompany someone else on their path to leadership. By learning and guiding others, you'll gain a deeper understanding, internalize these principles more effectively, and incorporate them into your leadership style.

This recommendation, known as stage 12 by Sinek, draws inspiration from a well-established method used in anonymous alcohol recovery programs, which have been operating for around half a century. This method comprises 12 stages of recovery, and those who don't complete the 12th stage often encounter difficulties in maintaining sobriety.

The 12th step is coined the "pay it forward" stage. By assisting others on their journey to recovery, you'll likely find that your resolve becomes more steadfast. Perhaps it's serotonin that engenders feelings of pride when we succeed or oxytocin that fosters love and trust in our hearts—nature ensures that we care for our world, and that's a noteworthy aspect.

In summary, it's worth reflecting on the book's title, which conveys a profound message: "Leaders Eat Last." It signifies that priorities should place employees and customers above all else rather than seeking power or self-indulgence. Authentic leadership is a commitment to serving workers and the public, not to wield authority for personal gratification. This is a principle that merits wholehearted endorsement.

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