Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t – by Simon Sinek

How strongly I recommend it: 7/10
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Anybody who wants to lead a team or start a company should read this book. There’s an extended misunderstanding of what being a leader actually means. In this book Simon Sinek tells you his experience with the marines and what it takes to be a leader, specially with rough times.


Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (Simon Sinek)
Chapman understood that to earn the trust of people, the leaders of an organization must first treat them like people. To earn trust, he must extend trust. He didn’t believe that simply because someone went to college or was good at accounting they were more trustworthy than someone who had a GED and was good with their hands. Chapman believed in the fundamental goodness of people and he was going to treat them as such.
When the people have to manage dangers from inside the organization, the organization itself becomes less able to face the dangers from outside.
Yet sadly in our modern world, given the systems we’ve developed to manage our companies, the number of organizations that inspire employees to truly commit themselves is a slim minority. The cultural norms of the majority of companies and organizations today actually work against our natural biological inclinations. This means that happy, inspired and fulfilled employees are the exception rather than the rule. According to the Deloitte Shift Index, 80 percent of people are dissatisfied with their jobs.
It is not the genius at the top giving directions that makes people great. It is great people that make the guy at the top look like a genius.
Intimidation, humiliation, isolation, feeling dumb, feeling useless and rejection are all stresses we try to avoid inside the organization. But the danger inside is controllable and it should be the goal of leadership to set a culture free of danger from each other. And the way to do that is by giving people a sense of belonging. By offering them a strong culture based on a clear set of human values and beliefs. By giving them the power to make decisions. By offering trust and empathy. By creating 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. Without a Circle of Safety, people are forced to spend too much time and energy protecting themselves from each other. It is the company we keep, the people around us, who will determine where we invest our energy. The more we trust that the people to the left of us and the people to the right of us have our backs, the better equipped we are to face the constant threats from the outside together. Only when we feel we are in a Circle of Safety will we pull together as a unified team, better able to survive and thrive regardless of the conditions outside.
Letting someone into an organization is like adopting a child.
This is an important point. We cannot tell people to trust us. We cannot instruct people to come up with big ideas. And we certainly can’t demand that people cooperate. These are always results—the results of feeling safe and trusted among the people with whom we work. When the Circle of Safety is strong, we naturally share ideas, share intelligence and share the burdens of stress. Every single skill and strength we have is amplified to better compete and face the dangers in the world outside and advance the organization’s interests vastly more effectively.
But there’s a twist. Leaders want to feel safe too. No matter what place we occupy in the pecking order, every single one of us wants to feel like we are valued by the others in the group. If we are having a bad day at work and our performance is suffering, instead of yelling at us, we wish our bosses would ask us, “Are you okay?” And likewise, we as members of the Circle have a responsibility to our leaders—that’s what makes us valuable to them, not our numbers. So when our boss comes down hard on us and we don’t know the reason, it is equally our responsibility to express concern for their well-being. That’s how the Circle of Safety stays strong. Whether you’re in a leadership role or not, the question is, how safe do you feel where you work?
But the myth of job stability may be the least of our concerns. A 2011 study conducted by a team of social scientists at the University of Canberra in Australia concluded that having a job we hate is as bad for our health and sometimes worse than not having a job at all. Levels of depression and anxiety among people who are unhappy at work were the same or greater than those who were unemployed.
This is why we are willing to change jobs in the first place; we feel no loyalty to a company whose leaders offer us no sense of belonging or reason to stay beyond money and benefits.
Misery may love company, but it is the companies that love misery that suffer the most.
For one, we’re evolutionarily programmed for hierarchies and we can’t get rid of them. More important, the hierarchy is not the solution. Simply earning more money or working our way up the ladder is not a prescription for stress reduction. The study was about our sense of control over our work and, indeed, our lives.
Like a bad relationship, even if we don’t like it, we don’t leave. Maybe it’s the feeling of the devil-you-know-is-better-than-the-devil-you-don’t or maybe it’s something else, but people seem to feel stuck in unhealthy work environments.
Our ancestors were born dirt poor. Opportunities didn’t come their way because of the schools they went to or who their parents knew. Any opportunities came from their will and hard work to create them. And create them they did. Our species was built to manage in conditions of great danger and insufficient resources.
Why add another degree of difficulty by fighting against each other when we were already forced to struggle against the hardships of nature, limited resources or other outside threats? This cooperative village life existed from the Amazonian rain forests to the open plains of Africa. In other words, it was not the physical environment that determined our best chance for survival and success—it was the very biology of our species, the design of the human being itself. The manner in which we evolved—to help each other—worked regardless of where we came from or the unique hardships we may have encountered.
There are four primary chemicals in our body that contribute to all our positive feelings that I will generically call “happy”: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Whether acting alone or in concert, in small doses or large, anytime we feel any sense of happiness or joy, odds are it is because one or more of these chemicals is coursing through our veins. They do not exist simply to make us feel good. They each serve a very real and practical purpose: our survival.
Even in our own biology, there exists this seeming conflict of interest. Of the four primary chemical incentives in our bodies, two evolved primarily to help us find food and get things done while the other two are there to help us socialize and cooperate. The first two chemicals, endorphins and dopamine, work to get us where we need to go as individuals—to persevere, find food, build shelters, invent tools, drive forward and get things done. I like to call these the “selfish” chemicals. The other two, serotonin and oxytocin, are there to incentivize us to work together and develop feelings of trust and loyalty. I like to call these the “selfless” chemicals. They work to help strengthen our social bonds so that we are more likely to work together and to cooperate, so that we can ultimately survive and ensure our progeny will live on beyond us.
A good vision statement, in contrast, explains, in specific terms, what the world would look like if everything we did was wildly successful.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us that he had a dream. That one day, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” We can imagine that; we can see what that looks like. And if we find that vision inspiring and worthy of our time and energy, then we can more easily plan the steps we need to take to achieve that vision. Short or long term, the clearer we can see what we are setting out to achieve, the more likely we are to achieve it. It’s exciting, thanks to dopamine. This is why the best visions offer us something that, for all practical purposes, we will never actually reach, but for which we would gladly die trying. Each point in our journey is an opportunity to feel like we’re making progress toward something bigger than ourselves.
When the system works as designed, we stay well fed, get our work done and make progress. What’s more, we are better able to support and provide for those in our family and tribe. Dopamine can help us get through college, become a doctor or work tirelessly to realize an imagined vision of the future. But there is some fine print at the bottom of the bottle that is often missed. Dopamine is also highly, highly addictive. As helpful as it is, we can also form neural connections that do not help us survive—in fact, they may do the complete opposite. The behaviors we reinforce can actually do us harm. Cocaine, nicotine, alcohol and gambling all release dopamine. And the feeling can be intoxicating. The chemical effects notwithstanding, the addictions we have to these things (and lots of other things that feel good) are all basically dopamine addictions. The only variation is the behavior that is reinforced that gives us the next hit of dopamine.
In the event of an actual threat, like police responding to an alarm, adrenaline is released into our bloodstream, giving us energy to get away or boosting our strength to face our foe. (If you’ve ever heard of stories of mothers who suddenly gain superhuman strength to save their children—that comes from adrenaline.) But if there is no threat, we take a deep breath, wait for the cortisol to leave our bloodstream, allow our heart rate to return to normal and relax again. Cortisol is not supposed to stay in our systems; it is supposed to fire off when we sense a threat and then leave when the threat has passed. And for good reason. The stress on our bodies is serious. The manner in which it reconfigures our internal systems can cause lasting damage if we have to live in a perpetual sense of fear or anxiety.
The paranoia cortisol creates is just doing its job. It is trying to get us to find the threat and prepare for it. Fight, run or hide. Whether the danger is real or imagined, the stress we feel is real. Unlike our rational minds, our bodies do not try to assess what the danger is. We simply react to the chemicals flowing through our bloodstreams to prepare us for what might be lurking. Our Paleolithic brain doesn’t care about understanding the threat. It just wants us to increase our chance of survival. What’s more, our bodies don’t understand that we work in offices and not in the open savannahs. Our ancient early warning system doesn’t understand that the “danger” we face is hardly life threatening. Which is why, in an effort to help us protect our interests, that system prompts us to react as if it were.
if we do not feel the Circle of Safety, cortisol starts to seep through our veins. Drip. Drip. Drip.
This is a serious problem. For one thing, cortisol actually inhibits the release of oxytocin, the chemical responsible for empathy. This means that when there is only a weak Circle of Safety and people must invest time and energy to guard against politics and other dangers inside the company, it actually makes us even more selfish and less concerned about one another or the organization.
When the time is taken to build proper relationships and when leaders choose to put their people before their numbers, when we can actually feel a sense of trust for each other, the oxytocin released in our bodies can reverse many of the negative effects of operating in a high-stress, cortisol-soaked environment. In other words, it’s not the nature of the work we do or the number of hours we work that will help us reduce stress and achieve work-life balance; it’s increased amounts of oxytocin and serotonin.
A 2010 study by three psychology scientists—Francesca Gino of Chapel Hill, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke—showed that people who wear phony couture clothing actually don’t feel the same burst of pride or status as those who wear the real thing. Faking it, it turns out, makes us feel phony, as if we are cheating. Status is biological, we have to earn it to feel it. The same study also concluded that those who attempted to cheat their biology were actually more inclined to cheat in other aspects of their lives as well.
Even though we can indeed raise our status with material goods, the feeling doesn’t last. There is no social relationship associated with that burst of serotonin. Again, the selfless chemicals are trying to help us strengthen our communities and social bonds. To find a lasting sense of pride, there must be a mentor/parent/boss/coach/leader relationship to back it up.
Leadership status is not just reserved for people; we also offer it to the tribes themselves. Just as we work to raise our individual status within our tribes, companies are constantly trying to raise their status in their respective industries. They tell us how many J. D. Powers awards they have won; they report their ranking on the FORTUNE 1000 list. Smaller companies are quick to share if they are an Inc. 5,000 company, a ranking of the fastest-growing small businesses. The reason we love rankings is because we’re hierarchical animals and there are perks to being higher in the pecking order.
Unless someone is willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of others to earn their place in the hierarchy, they aren’t really “alpha material.” Simply acting the part is not enough.
This is one of the reasons a publicist may recommend to a celebrity client that they get involved in charitable work. In our modern world, that’s the game. It is important to uphold the appearance of maintaining that deeply seeded social contract—that our alphas are supposed to serve us. And though there are definite benefits to a celebrity using their bully pulpits to bring attention to a cause or plight, if they really cared, they wouldn’t need to publicize every time they did something. Perhaps one of the sacrifices they could make is the spotlight.
The same is true for politicians during election cycles. It is fun to watch the politicians who announce that if elected they will do all these good things because they care about us. And if they lose their election, many go on to do none of those things. The rank of office is not what makes someone a leader. Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank. There are people with authority who are not leaders and there are people at the bottom rungs of an organization who most certainly are leaders. It’s okay for leaders to enjoy all the perks afforded to them. However, they must be willing to give up those perks when it matters.
Leaders are the ones willing to look out for those to the left of them and those to the right of them. They are often willing to sacrifice their own comfort for ours, even when they disagree with us. Trust is not simply a matter of shared opinions. Trust is a biological reaction to the belief that someone has our well-being at heart. Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last.
The goal for any leader of any organization is to find balance. When dopamine is the primary driver, we may achieve a lot but we will feel lonely and unfulfilled no matter how rich or powerful we get. We live lives of quick hits, in search of the next rush. Dopamine simply does not help us create things that are built to last. When we live in a hippie commune, the oxytocin gushing, but without any specific measureable goals or ambition, we can deny ourselves those intense feelings of accomplishment. No matter how loved we may feel, we may still feel like failures. The goal, again, is balance. When the system is in balance, however, we seem to gain almost supernatural ability. Courage, inspiration, foresight, creativity and empathy, to name a few. When those things all come to bear, the results and the feelings that go with them are simply remarkable.
watching your family board a plane knowing there was a qualified pilot or controller who will do everything by the book no matter what? Would you let your family get on a plane knowing that the pilot or air traffic controller cared only about what they need to do to get their next bonus? Or would you rather watch your family board a plane knowing there were confident pilots and controllers with lots of experience who will know what rules to break if something should go wrong, possibly putting their bonus at risk as a result? The answer is so plainly obvious. We don’t trust rules, we trust people. The responsibility of a leader is to provide cover from above for their people who are working below. When the people feel that they have the control to do what’s right, even if it sometimes means breaking the rules, then they will more likely do the right thing. Courage comes from above. Our confidence to do what’s right is determined by how trusted we feel by our leaders.
Trust is like lubrication. It reduces friction and creates conditions much more conducive to performance.
As Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, is fond of saying, “No one wakes up in the morning to go to work with the hope that someone will manage us. We wake up in the morning and go to work with the hope that someone will lead us.” The problem is, for us to be led, there must be leaders we want to follow.
Interestingly, nearly all those volunteers who refused to continue to take part in the experiment once they realized they were causing pain to someone else felt accountable to a greater moral imperative. Some were religious but all of them felt they were accountable to a higher authority than the scientists in the room.
Within the Law THE LARGEST SHIPS in the period before the turn of the twentieth century were predominantly ferries. They moved huge numbers of people from one place to another within close proximity to the shore. Logically, the regulations that outlined the responsibilities of the ship owners were based on how ships were used at that time—as ferries. By the time the Titanic set sail in 1912, however, the regulations had not yet been updated to reflect this new breed of oceangoing vessel (the equivalent to Timothy Cook’s “digital age”). The Titanic carried as many lifeboats as was required by the law, which was sixteen. The problem was, the Titanic was four times larger than the largest legal classification of ships of the day.
Relationships can certainly start online, but they only become real when we meet face-to-face.
We like to actually be around people who are like us. It makes us feel like we belong. It is also the reason a video conference can never replace a business trip. Trust is not formed through a screen, it is formed across a table. It takes a handshake to bind humans . . . and no technology yet can replace that. There is no such thing as virtual trust.
The reasons groups function best when they do not get bigger than about 150 people make perfect sense when you look closely. The first reason is time. Time is a constant—there are only twenty-four hours in a day. If we only gave two minutes to everyone we knew, we wouldn’t get to know people very well and deep bonds of trust would likely never form. The other is brain capacity. We simply can’t remember everyone. Which is why Dunbar’s Number is about 150, some can remember more and some remember fewer. In addition, as Dunbar has noticed in his research, when groups get bigger than about 150, the people are less likely to work hard and less likely to help each other out. This is a pretty significant finding as so many businesses work to manage their growth by focusing on cost efficiencies but ignore the efficiencies of human relationships. And ultimately, it is the strength of those human relationships that will help an organization manage at scale.
This means, for larger organizations, the only way to manage the scale and keep the Circle of Safety strong is to rely on hierarchies. A CEO can “care” about their people in the abstract, but not until that abstraction is mitigated can the care be real. The only way to truly manage at scale is to empower the levels of management. They can no longer be seen as managers who handle or control people. Instead, managers must become leaders in their own right, which means they must take responsibility for the care and protection of those in their charge, confident that their leaders will take care of them.
Just as a parent can’t buy the love of their children with gifts, a company can’t buy the loyalty of their employees with salaries and bonuses. What produces loyalty, that irrational willingness to commit to the organization even when offered more money elsewhere, is the feeling that the leaders of the company would be willing, when it matters, to sacrifice their time and energy to help us. We will judge a boss who spends time after hours to help us as more valuable than a boss who simply gives us a bonus when we hit a target.
As Goethe, the great nineteenth-century thinker, reportedly summed up, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”
Performance can go up and down; the strength of a culture is the only thing we can truly rely on.
The more attention a leader focuses on their own wealth or power, they stop acting like a leader and start taking on more of the attributes of a tyrant.
Absent any care from above, those inside the organization are less likely to cooperate. Instead, competing against each other becomes the best way to advance. And when that happens, the success individuals in the group may enjoy will not be met with congratulations from others, but with jealousy.
“The goal of a leader is to give no orders,” Captain Marquet explains. “Leaders are to provide direction and intent and allow others to figure out what to do and how to get there.” And this is the challenge most organizations face. “We train people to comply, not to think,” Captain Marquet goes on. If people only comply, we can’t expect people to take responsibility for their actions. The chain of command is for orders, not information. Responsibility is not doing as we are told, that’s obedience. Responsibility is doing what is right.
Simply wanting to be a leader and being willing to work hard is not enough. Unlike in the private sector, where being good at doing is often rewarded with a position of leading, in the Marines, leadership is also a matter of character—not just strength, intelligence or achievement.
Leadership, the Marines understand, is not about being right all the time. Leadership is not a rank worn on a collar. It is a responsibility that hinges almost entirely on character. Leadership is about integrity, honesty and accountability. All components of trust. Leadership comes from telling us not what we want to hear, but rather what we need to hear. To be a true leader, to engender deep trust and loyalty, starts with telling the truth.
We need to know that the information we are given by others and especially our leaders, good or bad, is the truth. We need to know that when someone says something, they mean it. If we doubt their integrity, then we cannot trust them with our lives or the lives of those we love. If we doubt someone’s integrity, we would hesitate before jumping into a foxhole with them. The integrity of those in our community is, as our brain perceives it, a matter of life and death.
Integrity is not about being honest when we agree with each other; it is also about being honest when we disagree or, even more important, when we make mistakes or missteps.
“Integrity is the bedrock of our foundation,” Michael Duke, the chief executive officer, president, director and chairman of the Global Compensation Committee and chairman of the Executive Committee of Walmart (yes, that’s his full title), told shareholders. “Our culture is who we are. It isn’t just words written on a wall at the Home Office or stapled to the bulletin board in the back room of a store. It makes us special. It sets us apart from the competition. And it appeals to people everywhere. So wherever we go and whatever changes we may make, we must keep our culture strong. I truly believe the retailer that respects individuals, that puts customers first, that strives for excellence, that is trusted will win the future.”
Building trust requires nothing more than telling the truth.
As a quick aside, “listening to customers” usually happens before decisions are made, not after.
When a company gets caught with its hand in the cookie jar,
As the Zen Buddhist saying goes, how you do anything is how you do everything.
All leaders, in order to truly lead, need to walk the halls and spend time with the people they serve, “eyeball leadership,” as the Marines call it.
When we are disconnected from the people with whom we work, we spend more time focused on our own needs than the needs of the people for whom we’re supposed to be responsible.
Cooperation doesn’t mean agreement, it means working together to advance the greater good, to serve those who rely on our protection, not to rack up wins to serve the party or ourselves.
If they care about the American people, it is anthropologically necessary for them to get together for no other reason than to get to know each other. Like any relationship, some will get along and some won’t. But in time, cooperation will happen.
A leader’s legacy is only as strong as the foundation they leave behind that allows others to continue to advance the organization in their name. Legacy is not the memory of better times when the old leader was there. That’s not legacy, that’s nostalgia. The founding fathers of the United States have a strong legacy because the United States was built to last long beyond their lifetimes. GE was built to maximize the opportunity of the day, a day when the numbers mattered more than the people. It was not an opportunity built to last. And so it didn’t.
Jim Collins and Jerry Porras make the case in their book, Built to Last, that when the genius at the top leaves, they take all their expertise and genius with them. In contrast, when a leader has the humility to distribute power across the organization, the strength of the company becomes less dependent on one person and is thus better able to survive. In this model, instead of trying to command-and-control everything, the leaders devote all their energy to training, building and protecting their people—to managing the Circle of Safety—so that the people can command and control any situation themselves. That’s the best way to protect the legacy of the leader and extend the success of the company for many years after the leader departs.
“Employees and customers often know more about and have more of a long-term commitment to a company than shareholders do.”
Unlike Welch, Sinegal, by cultivating a strong Circle of Safety, built his company for bad times as well as for good ones. He also built it to survive him, which is why Costco’s profits continued to grow even through Sinegal’s retirement. Certainly, Costco saw its growth slow during hard economic times (its share price suffered through the last half of 2008) and not every store has been a success.
“Wall Street is in the business of making money between now and next Tuesday,” Sinegal once said. “We’re in the business of building an organization, an institution that we hope will be here 50 years from now.”
Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.
It is a given that profit is the goal of any business, but to suggest it is the primary responsibility of a business is misguided. It is the leaders of companies that see profit as fuel for their cultures that will outlast their dopamine-addicted, cortisol-soaked competitors.
All managers of metrics have an opportunity to become leaders of people.
All managers of metrics have an opportunity to become leaders of people. Just as every doctor in our country learned the importance of sterilizing their instruments, so too must every leader of every organization do the little things necessary to protect their people. But first, they have to admit they are at the root of the problem.
Thanks to the dopamine released by the alcohol, the feelings of struggle, intimidation, fear, anxiety and paranoia go away when they drink. This is one of the reasons taking control of alcoholism is so difficult.
This is the burden of having too much. It’s easy to spend or dispose of what we don’t need when there is plenty more available.
It is not the work we remember with fondness, but the camaraderie, how the group came together to get things done.
If the leaders of organizations give their people something to believe in, if they offer their people a challenge that outsizes their resources but not their intellect, the people will give everything they’ve got to solve the problem.
Human beings have thrived for fifty thousand years not because we are driven to serve ourselves, but because we are inspired to serve others.
Empathy is not something we offer to our customers or our employees from nine to five. Empathy is, as Johnny Bravo explains, “a second by second, minute by minute service that [we] owe to everyone if [we] want to call [ourselves] a leader.” Leadership is not a license to do less; it is a responsibility to do more. And that’s the trouble. Leadership takes work. It takes time and energy. The effects are not always easily measured and they are not always immediate. Leadership is always a commitment to human beings.
Everything about being a leader is like being a parent. It is about committing to the well-being of those in our care and having a willingness to make sacrifices to see their interests advanced so that they may carry our banner long after we are gone.