Leaders Eat Last: Notes & Review

Leaders eat last

In Leaders Eat Last (2014) Simon Sinek says that leadership is all about taking care of people. Leaders are not responsible for the numbers, says Sinek, leadership is about people and for the people, who in turn will take care of the numbers.

leaders eat last quote

Exec Summary

  • “Leaders eat last” means that leaders first take care of their people, and only after they can think of themselves
  • A team can only effectively face external threats when there are no internal threats, and it’s up to the leaders to eliminate those internal threats
  • Leaders have some benefits, but need to fulfill responsibilities too (protecting the tribe)
  • We need more leaders, so take it upon yourself to become one

Leaders Eat Last Summary

Leaders Eat Last starts by saying that today’s training are not about developing leaders but training managers instead.

And that goes hand in hand with a short term mentality that disregards long term viability and people.
Leaders Eat Last wants to change that paradigm.

Part 1 – Our Need to Feel Safe

Chapter 1: Protection from Above

Simon Sinek uses examples from military and combat because, he says, lessons are more obvious in life and death scenarios.

He says though that the same principles apply everywhere else.

Be it an effective platoon in the fog of war or a successful company in a booming market, they all share one thing: leaders provide cover from above and the people on the ground look after each other.

Chapter 2: Employees are People too

Sinek says that leaders of great organizations don’t look at people as commodities to grow the money, but they see money as a commodity to help grow their people.

Seeing the relationship between people and money from a people’s first perspective, says the author, is a necessity to have the people care about the organization.
Once you can put the people first, In return, people will give everything they have to help the organization grow.

As leaders, says indeed Sinek, our sole responsibility is to protect our people.
And in turn the people will protect each other and advance the organization as a whole.

On the other hand, when our leaders don’t take care of us, Sinek says that it’s our duty to protect and take care of each other (read more about How to Deal with a Bad Boss)

Simon Sinek might sound an idealist to some… But he says he can’t be accused of idealism when the organizations he describes actually DO exist and DO happen to do well.

…To sacrifice the numbers to save the people, and not to sacrifice the people to save the numbers

Chapter 3: Belonging

Simon Sinek here introduces the concept of the Circle of Safety.

The author says that the world around us is filled with danger and forces trying to hinder us.
Back in the days, it was saber tooth tigers, today it is competitors, changing technologies, meeting deadlines, and personal life issues.

In some organizations, there are also threats from the inside towards the individuals, such as layoffs and bad cultures.

When organizations present threats from the inside the focus of the individual switches to self-preservation.
And when that happens people can’t build a unified team but will defend themselves or their smaller teams at the cost of the overall organization.

It’s the duty of leadership then to set an internal culture that is free of threats and rich in camaraderie.

The Circle of Safety

The wrong Circle of Safety (circle of threats):

bad circle of safety - leaders eat last

Absent internal threats instead people don’t need to self-preserve and our inner drives to socialize and care about the group can take over.

And when effective leadership can fill the culture with a sense of belonging and care for the group, that’s when the people can effectively tackle the external threats.

The good Circle of Safety:

circle of safety - simon sinek

Chapter 4: Yeah, But..

Simon Sinek reviews the reality of life for many managers and employees who are stuck in bad companies and bad cultures.

He says there are very few leaders who strive to make the work environment safe.
Some of us like and nod at the theoretical principles but then… Then we tell ourselves the reality is different.

We got to make sales, show some numbers and, of course, we got mouths to feed.
So people stay put even when they don’t like their job. And that’s a pity, because having a job we hate is often worse for our health than not having a job at all.

And still, even when we know that, we stay in jobs we hate, convincing ourselves than the dangers of staying are smaller than the dangers of leaving which, the authors, says it’s not true.

Control And Stress
Sinek cites studies to say that work stress is not caused by pressure and high responsibility, but by the level of control that people have on their own work.

Basically, those who feel empowered to make their own decisions instead of waiting for approval suffer less stress.

And it’s also not the effort required that makes us stressed, but the imbalance between the effort and the reward we receive that is stressful.
So people working for terrible managers who don’t reward them, suffer higher stress.

Part 2 – Powerful Forces

Chapter 5: When Enough was Enough

Simon Sinek says we work at our best when facing external challenges, and that’s rooted in biology.

However, there are many misguided leaders who believe internal threats are necessary to push people in the right direction which, the author says, is simply not true.

The Biological Conflict

We all have a biological conflict of interest within us.

We have indeed four major chemical incentives in our body. Two are more selfish for “getting things done” -endorphins and dopamine- and two -Serotonin and Oxytocin- are for more selfless activities such as socializing and cooperating.

Serotonin and oxytocin are the backbone of the Circle of Safety.

Chapter 6: E.D.S.O.

Simon Sinek goes deeper into chemistry here and its effects. Don’t skip it though as this is important to understand the powerful insights of the book:

  • Endorphines are there to hide pain;
  • Dopamine makes you feel good when accomplishing a goal;
  • Serotonin makes you feel grateful for the people who support you;
  • Oxytocin is responsible for love and released when hugging or bonding

Because of serotonin, Simon Sinek says, we can’t feel a sense of responsibility for the numbers. We can only feel a sense of responsibility to the people.

We can’t feel responsibility to numbers. Only to people

Chapter 7: The Big C

Simon Sinek says that the release of social chemicals is not automatic but can be inhibited through Cortisol if we feel under threat.

So when our inner circle and tribe is ripe with threats, we release cortisol, which stops oxytocin.
When that happens, we have no feeling of empathy towards our colleagues and friends and have no drive to help one another.

When we are immersed in an environment in which we cannot feel safe, we naturally become more selfish and we start using our time and energy to preserve ourselves through politicking, backstabbing, gossiping, etc.

On the other hand, with a well functioning Circle of Safety, Serotonin and Oxytocin can be released and we can even deploy our selfish chemicals and drives for good use.
For example, to further the goals and benefits of our whole organization and group and add value to the customers.

Chapter 8: Why We Have Leaders

As much as it’s popular to say we are all equal, the truth is we are not and we will never be.

Sinek says we need a social hierarchy to avoid the constant battle for food that would leave us all divided and enemies.
With a hierarchy instead we voluntarily step back and allow the higher status individuals to serve themselves first.

However, Simon Sinek says, the higher status comes at a price, and it’s this price that our current society often forgets.

The price for high status is to defend the group.
The alpha males of the tribe, the strongest of the group and brimming of serotonin, should indeed be the first to rush towards danger and protect the rest of the group.

And that’s why we give them first choice of mate: if they die early from the threats we want to keep their genes in the group.
The group is not stupid or irrational, we don’t give them all the perks for nothing.
That wouldn’t be fair.

My Note:
This is a bit of naive interpretation of evolutionary psychology to be honest. Sinek seems to describe some sort of “group selection” where people behave rationally and collaboratively to maximize the group’s return.
But that is not the case.

That’s why we get angry for huge severance payments of many executives: they took the perks and the money but did not offer any protection. They actually often do just the opposite: they sacrifice their people to boost their interests.
Fame and financial wealth should be a byproduct of alpha status, not a way to achieve it.

The rank of office, says Simon Sinek, is not what makes a leader. Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.

Those who want to enjoy the leaders’ perks without fulfilling the obligations are, by definition, weak leaders.
True leaders are the ones who rise through the ranks because they fulfill their obligations and the tribe offers them the higher status.

It’s obvious then why good leaders do well for their tribes in hard times, says Sinek: it’s because their people willingly commit to see them, their tribe and their company grow strong.

Leadership is the choice to serve other with or without the formal rank

Part 3- Reality

Chapter 9: The Courage to Do the Right Thing

Simon Sinek says we trust people, not rules.

We don’t really care about rules as long as the people in charge are doing the right thing for us.
That’s why we find bureaucrats and sticklers for the rules annoying: the rules are there to serve us, not the other way.
And when the rules don’t serve us anymore, there’s no point in following and keeping them.

In strong organizations people break the rules for the organization benefit. In weak organizations, people break the rules for their own personal gain.

Chapter 10: Snowmobile in the Desert

Simon Sinek says it’s ironic what happened with technology.

Our limbic brain controls our feelings and ability to trust and cooperate.
And it’s exactly that ability that allowed us to build this complex and technologically advanced world we live in.

And it’s ironic that this same technology is making it harder for us to cooperate and live well with one another.
He uses the booming self help industry as the sign that we are growing apart from each other and growing more and more unhappy (also read: self-help myths).

My Note:
I have to disagree here. Technology is making it harder for us to cooperate? Where is Sinek living? This is a world of cooperation opportunities. 

Part 4 – How We Got Here

Chapter 11: The Boom Before the Bust

Simon Sinek says that the World War I generation -the great generation- was all about serving others.
The baby boomers instead switched towards a path of only caring about themselves.

My Note:
I always recoil at these generation-generalizations and I’m not 100% sure how valid they can even be since none of us lived in that era.
I have to call BS on this one.

Chapter 12: The Boomers All Grown Up

Disposable technologies took root with the baby boomers and that’s when we started to look for more things to throw out.

Eventually, it ended up expanding to… People. People started becoming disposable.

The author says, and will expand later, on the fact that we have become abstractions.
We are anonymous customers, lines on email lists, avatars and expenses on a spreadsheet.

05.08.1981: The Culture of Lay Offs
On August fifth, 1981 Ronal Reagan fired 11.000 traffic controllers.

Sinek says this was a tacit approval from the country leadership and authority that easy, mass firings were OK and good for business.
Now everyone could be easily laid off if it served to improve the numbers.

reagan mass lay off : leaders eat last
Kicking off the lay off era

Part 5: The Abstract Challenge 

Chapter 13: Abstraction Kills

I loved Simon Sinek’s take on Milgram’s experiment.

He first notices that people were more likely to inflict the most severe electric shock when they were not able to see the victim.
And then he says that the same experiment is taking place right now in offices around the world.

When people could not see the victims the victims weren’t real but became abstractions.
Similarly, the more abstract and physically distant the people become from any headquarters or high up office floor, the more we become capable of harming them with our decisions.

Chapter 14: Modern Abstraction

Sinek draws a parallel between the nazi famous defense of “I was following orders” to the modern “we have to provide shareholder value” of corporate world.

Sinek says that we are visual animals.
We pursue things we can see. If we see a person needing help, we help. If there’s a clear vision of a brighter future, we build it.
And if we have to work to increase a number from X to Y, we’ll do that too. The problem is in the pain and harm behind those numbers and which we cannot see.

When we can’t see our customers indeed we pursue the most immediate thing we can see: metrics and KPIs.
And to justify any action the new corporate mantra is “we work to provide shareholder value” or “we need to fulfill our fiduciary duty”.

The author says that similar to the Milgam’s experiment where some people blamed the people who were receiving the shocks, some bankers in the latest crisis ended up blaming the defaulting homeowners.

He quotes Jamie Dimon saying :

Jamie Dimon: “we are not evicting people who deserve to stay in their house

Funny enough, Duckworth used Jamie Dimon as an example to emulate in her book “Grit“.

Provide shareholder value = I was following orders

Chapter 15: Managing the Abstraction

Simon Sinek proposes a few rules to tackle the dangers of abstraction.

  1. Keep It Real—Bring People Together. The Internet can’t give us deep and trusting relationships. Trust is formed in person.
  2. Keep It Manageable: 150 max. Keep your groups at no more than 150 people to reap the benefit of group’s cohesion and sense of tribal belonging
  3. Meet People You Help. Getting a visual and real-world experience of the impact of your work will reward you and motivate you to do even more
  4. Give Time, Not Money. We value time and effort we receive more than money (read more on Drive by Daniel Pink)
  5. Be Patient— 7 Days and 7 Years. It takes time to develop a bond of love and trust. Sinek doesn’t know how long it takes but it’s more than 7 days and less than 7 years

Chapter 16: Imbalance

Many organizations today are imbalanced in terms of selfish and social pursuits, a situation which he calls “Destructive Abundance”.

Destructive Abundance is too much dopamine (goal accomplishment) and no oxytocin (social chemical).

It’s getting the results without caring for those who produce the results, and it’s focusing on the final score forgetting why we even started in the first place.
Destructive Abundance is often brought by leaders whom don’t take it upon themselves to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership.

Part 6 – Destructive Abundance

Chapter 17: Leadership Lesson 1 – Culture = Company

Simon Sinek uses a beautiful quote to introduce his concept:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him. 

What it means is that a strong company culture will treat everyone well and not just those who are paying them or earning money at the moment.

The author says that the people working in bad companies are neither bad nor evil in themselves, but the companies they work for make it possible for them to do bad and evil.

Chapter 18: Leadership Lesson 2 – Leader = Culture

Sinek says that leaders set the tone of behavior in an organization.

Strong leaders delegate responsibilities and empower their subordinates. They foster an environment where social chemicals -and the relative behaviors- are abundant and people look after each other.

He outlines the example of O’Neil in Merrill Lynch as a terrible example of a bad leader ruining a culture and destroying a company.

And he details the positive example of Captain Marquet aboard the Santa Fe submarine.

He also speaks at length about Jack Welch and Sinegal from Costco.

Chapter 19: Leadership Lesson 3 – Integrity Matters

Simon Sinek says that when we cannot trust the people who are supposed to lead us and serve us, then the whole fabric of our groups come apart.

Leaderships is about:

  • Integrity: the adherence to a code of morals; telling the truth; incorruptibility, and when our words and deeds are aligned. The worst betrayal of integrity is when people tell us what we want to hear and change their stance to suit their interests (politicians)
  • Honesty: telling the truth. That simple.
  • Accountability

Chapter 20: Leadership Lesson 4 – Friends Matter

The US Congress worked better in the past because democrats and republicans mingled with each other and spoke to each other once business was settled.

The author says it’s very healthy indeed to meet and spend time together out of the business context as we are more inclined to see people as human beings, and develop deeper friendships.

When we never meet and speak to our opponents, we also tend to demonize our opponents (also see “The Lucifer Effect“).

Chapter 21: Leadership Lesson 5 – Lead People, Not Numbers

Here Simon Sinek debunks the myth of Jack Welch, the famed CEO of General Electric.

Welch was the typical leader who purported to serve the shareholders and went after the short term gains.
Sinek says he didn’t leave behind as great of a company as most people think.

The author then compares him to Costco’s CEO, who pays his employees above minimum legal wage and is interested in people and long term growth.
Nobody knows him, but he built a far more solid company. His returns on share, also, have been far larger.

Sinek says that teams led by directive leaders initially outperform those led by empowering leaders.
But in the long run, empowering leaders do better.

Part 7 – A Society of Addicts

Chapter 22: At the Center of All Our Problems is Us

Sinek says that managers look after numbers and results, leaders look after us.

But before we can point any finger at the terrible managers, we have to point the finger at ourselves first. We have to look at ourselves, and we have to admit we are the problem.

Managers look after numbers. Leaders look after people

Chapter 23: At Any Expense

Simon Sinek says the desire to win has always existed and it has always caused problems.
He says the desire to win should not take precedence over taking care of the people we serve.

Winning should not come at the cost of serving people

Chapter 24: The Abstract Generation

Simon Sinek says that cellphones are the new drug for Generation Y.

The digital addiction is making the new generation more impatient in the best case scenario, and more lonely and isolated at worst.

The author then keeps laying it on thick on Generation Y saying it’s a superficial generation all about “having an impact” and “raising awareness” but it forgets that to have an impact and to solve problems requires grit, determination and hard work.

And doesn’t happen with a share or alike.

Part 8 – Becoming a Leader

Chapter 25: Step 12

Simon Sinek says that all of the people who enroll in Anonymous Alcoholics, almost only those who reach step 12 will get rid of alcohol addiction.

Step 12 is about service and taking care and helping someone else beat the alcoholism.
Step 12 is about oxytocin, and oxytocin is key in beating addiction and pushing us through.

Interestingly enough, Sinek also says that Anonymous Alcoholic is a perfectly formed Circle of Safety.

Chapter 26: Shared Struggle

Simon Sinek says that to inspire us, we need challenges that outstrip the available resources.

Bill Gates for example said “a PC on every desk”, and that was am example of a huge challenge.

The author says that if leaders can paint a challenge bigger than the available resources -but within the intellect capacities- people will become motivated and will give everything they’ve got.

Chapter 27: We Need More Leaders

Leadership is a commitment to people and takes time, effort and energy.

He says that the Jack Welch style of leadership can seem more attractive because it feels more like gambling in a casino, more like an emotional roller coaster.

The author ends the book saying it’s not just those at the top who need to change.
It’s the responsibility of all of us to keep the Circle of Safety strong, and we must all start today to make our own contribution for the good of others and to be the leaders we wish we had.

Let us all be the leaders we wish we had

Leaders Eat Last Video Summary

Here is a good Leaders Eat Last summary I liked:

How You Can Apply It

  • Take Care of People First: Apply this in all your relationships and you’ll be a happy person
  • Paint Realistic Vision: “becoming N.1”, “being the leader of..” are no inspiring visions and mean nothing. Make something more practical and easier to measure
  • Paint a Struggle to Motivate: to motivate people, make a big goal which is a struggle to reach
  • Act Like a Leader: and shoulder the responsibilities. Or abdicate the role

CONS

  • Nice sounding, but it’s not how things truly work

“Leaders Eat Last” is a great-sounding book.

But not very grounded in reality.
And if you wanna make it to the top of your organization, this book might not help you.

I’m actually unhappy to write that. I wish it weren’t so.

But evidence shows that psychopathic traits get you to the top more often than empathy does. And evidence shows that as a manager, it pays off to network more than to spend your time on the team.
If you want to be the catalyst for positive change, my advice is to get politically savvy. And then use it for good. But you must learn the truth, first.

  • Ivory-tower, unrealistic view of leadership

Has Simon Sinek ever worked in business?

Sometimes, it feels like he might have not.
Frankly, it makes little sense to say “leaders are not responsible for the numbers”, when they clearly are.

Says leadership trainer Kim Scott, who has actually been a leader in a top-performing organization:

Bosses are responsible for results, and they guide their teams to achieve results.

Yep.

  • Romanticized, rose-tinted view of “before was better”

Way too often Simon Sinek defaults to romanticizing the past in contrast to the present.

It was all great back then, and today it all sucks. The previous generations were great, today’s generations suck. Congress used to work well, now it doesn’t. Even Goldman Sachs used to be a great company and today it’s Goldman sucks.

It’s probably a formula that helps selling and marketing, but I don’t particularly love it.

  • Some so-so evolutionary psychology analysis

The analysis of how leaders acted in our past was somewhat simplistic and, again, romanticized.
The truth is that the leaders of our cave days were probably as ruthless and cunning as they are today.
Probably more.

Leaders eat last book cover

Review

“Leaders East Last” deals with the ethics, morality, and responsibilities of leadership.

As someone who’s been around weak leaders after numbers and self-preservation, I couldn’t agree more with Simon Sinek.

But frankly, this is not the book that will help you advance in your career. This is the book you can read when you get to the top, to influence the culture and become a great leader.

But as much as it pains me to say, it’s not the book that will help you get to the top, I’m afraid.

Still, I recommend it to anyone in business or anyone interested in social dynamics, leading people and human relationships.

Further Reading

Or get Leaders Eat Last on Amazon.

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