“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.”
– Leaders Eat Last, page 18
Five years after the release of his wildly successful Start With Why, Simon Sinek is back with his sophomoric book, Leaders Eat Last. It’s always with some trepidation that I pick up the follow up to any breakout success. After all, the bar’s been set pretty high.
Thankfully, Leaders Eat Last doesn’t disappoint. In it, Sinek takes the best of what worked in Start With Why – an aspirational message backed by neuro-science – and adds even more weight to his claims through dozens of case studies of both private and public companies. And what is that claim, you’re asking? Sinek’s message is that strong leadership is a biological imperative in any group situation. That there are specific attributes that human beings look for in a leader, and certain circumstances in which leadership is more natural for us. Here we go.
"Those who work hardest to help others succeed will be seen by the group as the leader or the ‘alpha’ of the group. And being the alpha – the strong, supportive one of the group, the one willing to sacrifice time and energy so that others may gain – is a prerequisite for leadership."
In so many organizations today, promotion to leadership positions is awarded to those who are good at doing. It’s always bothered me on a gut level – we take our best doers out of the tasks they’re good at. We ask them to stop doing and start managing, often based on nothing more than their ability to do, well.
Sinek’s message is that the skills that make for a strong leader – a leader we want to follow – have little to do with their ability to complete tasks, and instead on other characteristics. Traits like integrity and trust.
Sinek does a lot of work with the United States armed forces. Specifically, he works with (and takes leadership lessons from) the Marine Corp; one of the world’s most effective military forces.
“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 – true leadership – is the ability to infuse those who report to you with an unshakeable trust in your intentions. Giving them zero reason to believe you have anything than your people’s best interests in mind.
Your most precious resource
"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."
Sinek provides example after example (both case studies and insight into how our brains process information) of how giving of your time is more effective – more impactful – than giving of your money.
It starts from how our brains quantify things. Money is too abstract for us to have an emotional connection to it. Of course we all like bonuses, and if you ask anyone if they’d like a $5000 bonus or a day learning one-on-one from their boss they’d be hard pressed not to say “show me the money”. And yet bonuses and raises do little to engender trust or strengthen relationships. By all means, give them the bonus. But do not mistake financial reward as a worthwhile replacement for time, energy and attention.
Time is concrete. Since we all have the same number of hours in the day, we appreciate the gift of time on a biological level. Sinek uses the example of packing up your house for a move: if one friend gave you $5000 towards a moving company and a second friend gave a day of their time to help you lug boxes, who do you feel closer to? To whom have you developed more loyalty?
If you want to develop your own leadership credibility, give your people the gift of your time; as much, and as often as you can.
You gotta love it
"Children are better off having a parent who works into the night in a job they love than a parent who works shorter hours but comes home unhappy."
If you’re unhappy in the way you spend your work day, it’s difficult to give of yourself to the level your people need. Children, spouses, co-workers and those who report to you are directly impacted by your own level of happiness. It has to do with our feelings of safety (what Sinek calls “The Circle of Safety”), which is to say that our stress levels and self-preservation tendencies go down when we find ourselves in an environment that we trust is built to protect us. When we feel that our leaders are happy, secure and working to protect the tribe because they want to do it, we focus our attention and energy on achieving for the good of the tribe.
In practical terms, the lesson here is that it’s difficult to expect our teams to work towards a collective good if we’re spending a couple hours a day looking for another job. To be the most effective leaders we can be, we need to commit to being here. We need to find personal satisfaction in our roles and move our attention off our selves and onto the best interests of the people we lead. This may seem obvious for some, but it’s an important “self check” if we feel like those in our charge are self serving. They may be taking a lesson from the top.
“‘The cost of leadership,’ explains Lieutenant General George Flynn of the United States Marine Corps, ‘is self-interest.’”
I’m not typically one for military examples, sports examples, or other “lessons” to be learned from industries outside the business world. But when it comes to leadership and developing strong teams of people who trust each other (with their lives, no less), there are definitely things we can learn from the armed forces. And, as a relief, the biggest lesson I’ve taken from this book is that we don’t necessarily want to follow those who are smartest, toughest or most skilled. Instead, the most effective teams – in business and the military alike – are led by selfless leaders. Leaders whose best attributes are trustworthiness and integrity; individuals who put the needs of the group ahead of personal gain. (The irony, of course, is that these “team first” leaders end up with the largest personal gain. It’s a bi-product of good leadership though, not the objective.)
Establishing trust takes time. Building a reputation of integrity takes time. It’s not the fastest way to short term profits, and sadly that’s what derails so many potential leaders. But, if you’re working in a field you believe in and focus on the long term success of your people and your organization, leadership isn’t really that complicated. The ability to be a good leader is inherent to all of us.