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A Book

Leaders Eat Last

Simon Sinek

The main message of Leaders Eat Last is simple — the buck stops at the leader's desk. In other words, those of us that lead may not always understand the impact that our leadership roles actually have on those we lead.

Leaders Eat Last explores the influence that neurochemicals have on the way people feel and consequently act, and examines the discrepancies between how our bodies were designed to function and how they function today. Ultimately, we need true leaders to direct us back on the right path.

Top 20 Insights from the book

1. The most important job of leadership is to provide cover for your people as they push hard and take risks. Protecting your people from danger is the most important thing to do.

2. To be a great leader, don't look at issues in abstract terms. Get to know the people within the Circle of Safety you create and find ways to help them. This is true leadership.

3. Managers look after numbers but leaders look after people. Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first. Inspire your people, don't merely count heads.

4. Great organizations have great cultures. To build these cultures we need leaders providing cover from above, so people on the ground, feeling safe, can just look out for each other.

5. Leaders bring you more of the first part, and managers more of the second. It’s just a matter of priorities. What others foster is one thing and what you want to become is another.

6. Spend more time on developing great leaders and less time on creating effective managers.

7. Sinek describes what often happens to a culture without a circle of safety- not only are their external threats but internal threats as well. Other negative consequences can include silos forming, politics, mistakes being covered up, and self-preservation.

8. Some believe we should always put others first—that if we don’t look out for the group, the group won’t look out for us. Others believe we should always put ourselves first and that if we don’t take care of ourselves first, then we would be of no use to anyone else. The fact is, both are true.

9. Good leadership is like exercise. We do not see any improvement to our bodies with day-to-day comparisons. In fact, if we only compare the way our bodies look on a given day to how they looked the previous day, we would think our efforts had been wasted. It’s only when we compare pictures of ourselves over a period of weeks or months that we can see a stark difference. The impact of leadership is best judged over time.

10. The best leaders share what they know, ask knowledgeable people for help performing their duties, and make introductions to create new relationships within their network. Poor leaders hoard these things falsely believing it’s their intelligence, rank, or relationships that make them valuable. It's not.

11. Leadership is not a license to do less- it is a responsibility to do more.

12. Each of us is an individual and a part of social groups. We make daily decisions that require us to weigh our self-interests against group interests. This dilemma also happens in our bodies via 4 key chemicals: Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin and Oxytocin

13. Whether you’re on a Wall Street firm or if you run a small nonprofit, your job as the leader is to control a specific company culture that facilitates success and employee comfort. Don’t let the culture become toxic or aggressive or your followers may flee in droves.

14. You should always take a leadership spot at an organization with the intention of being there for a long time. Focusing on boosting profits for your shareholders in the short term will ultimately end up in pain for many, and even yourself.

15. Whenever you’re practicing as a leader, your eye should be on the ultimate goal and the long-term effects of your actions and organization. Leave the short-term goals to lieutenants and your employees or workers.

16. As an effective leader, you’ll need to learn to delegate and trust people to do their work effectively. If you’ve done your job as a teacher and inspirational manager well enough, your followers should do what they need to perfectly.

17. 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.

18. Work stress is not caused by pressure and high responsibility, but by the level of control that people have on their own work.

19. Goals are things that you can easily mark and you can see within arm’s reach, like a distance marker on a run. A vision is a more abstract thing that can become real in the future as you hit your goals.

The alpha males of the tribe, the strongest of the group and brimming with serotonin, should indeed be the first to rush toward danger and protect the rest of the group.


Part 1 — Our Need to Feel Safe

Leaders provide cover from above and the people on the ground look out for each other. This is the reason they are willing to push hard and take the kinds of risks they do. And the way any organization can achieve this is with empathy.

Chapman understood that to earn the trust of people, the leaders of an organisation must first treat them like people. To earn trust, he must extend trust.

When the people have to manage dangers from inside the organisation, the organisation itself becomes less able to face the dangers from outside.

Truly human leadership protects an organisation from the internal rivalries that can shatter a culture. When we have to protect ourselves from each other, the whole organisation suffers. But when trust and cooperation thrive internally, we pull together and the organisation grows stronger as a result.

Operating in a hostile, competitive world in which each group was in pursuit of finite resources, the systems that helped us survive and thrive as a species also work to help organisations achieve the same. There are no fancy management theories and it is not about hiring dream teams. It is just a matter of biology and anthropology. If certain conditions are met and the people inside an organisation feel safe among each other, they will work together to achieve things none of them could have ever achieved alone. The result is that their organisation towers over their competitors.

Every single employee is someone’s son or daughter. Like a parent, a leader of a company is responsible for their previous lives.

It is the ability to grow one’s people to do what needs to be done that creates stable, lasting success. 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 org. 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.

Stress and anxiety at work have less to do with the work we do and more to do with the weak management and leadership. When we know that there are people at work who care about how we feel, our stress levels decrease.

It is not the demands of the job that cause the most stress, but the degree of control workers feel they have throughout the day. The studies also found that the effort required by a job is not in itself stressful, but rather the imbalance between the effort we give and the reward we feel. Put simply: less control, more stress.

The lower someone’s rank in the org hierarchy, the greater the risk of stress-related health problems, not the other way around.

Part 2 - Powerful Forces

It's really simple. If we feel that we belong and trust who we work with we will cooperate and face every challenge together. Without that, we will have to invest in protection for ourselves and the whole group will be weak to all outside threats.

We are social animals and it's by being social that we know each other, establish relationships and gain trust. This was important when we lived in tribes and it is now. When we lead it makes a difference to roam the halls of the office/organizations and engage with people beyond what is required to accomplish work-related tasks.

  • It becomes a work-related "task" to form deep      connections with the people we work with;

  • To know who they are, what they need, and what moves them;

  • To be there in the good times, so we are not strangers they      can't turn to in difficult times.

When we work with each other and for each other, our bodies will chemically reward us so that we continue doing it.

The four chemicals that shape our best

There are 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.

Endorphins and Dopamine

The "selfish" chemicals, or in a more positive way, the chemicals of progress. They help us get what we need as individuals - find food, build shelters, and getting things done. How? By making us feel good when we find what we were looking for or achieve a goal.

Endorphins' purpose is to mask physical pain. It can't hurt too much to build a shelter, otherwise, we would quit in the middle and die with hypothermia.

Dopamine's purpose is to provide that good feeling after we do something we needed to get done. It makes us a goal-oriented species.

On vision statements

If a company's vision is to have some meaningful purpose we need to define it in such a way that we can clearly see in our minds what we are trying to accomplish. Only then can dopamine works its "magic" and help us on the chase. Visions work if they explain in specific terms, what will the world look like if we succeed in executing our grand plans. That's why they are called "visions".

Serotonin and Oxytocin

The "selfless" chemicals. They provide the incentive for working together, keeping our promises, and develop trust. They are the backbone of our societies and cultures, and why we pull together to achieve much bigger things than if we were trying them alone.

Serotonin's purpose is to fill us with pride when we get the respect and acknowledgment of our loved ones and colleagues. We need to feel valued for our contributions to the "tribe".

“Whether we are a boss, coach or parent, serotonin is working to encourage us to serve those for whom we are directly responsible. And if we are the employee, player or the one being looked after, the serotonin encourages us to work hard to make them proud.”

Oxytocin is the feeling of love, friendship, and trust.It's key to our survival. It leads us to cooperate, be generous, and make sacrifices for others, without expecting anything in return. It is because of oxytocin that we trust others to help us build our businesses, do difficult things or help us when we are in trouble.

Good leaders provide balance

As with all things important, the goal of the leader is to find a balance between goals and fulfillment. With dopamine as the driver, we may accomplish all our goals, but feel unsupported and disconnected, no matter how much our rewards go up. With oxytocin as the driver we may be content and happy but stagnate without a hint of ambition or accomplishment.

The chemical for trouble

The gut feeling you have when you feel there is something dangerous about to happen is caused by cortisol. Its purpose is to alert us to possible danger and prepare us to take measures to protect ourselves to raise our chances of survival.

Even at work, where hopefully you're not in danger to be eaten by some predator, cortisol is what makes you anxious, uncomfortable, and stressed. Our body is not that advanced to understand that you don't need extra fast reflexes when you're just fighting against a project deadline without support. We get the bad parts of cortisol without needing the benefits.

Cortisol also affects us by inhibiting the release of oxytocin, so it's no surprise that when the times get tougher at work it's also when we start to lose the behaviors that we most need to face together the challenge in front of us.

“If we work in an environment in which leadership tells the truth, in which layoffs are not the default in hard times and in which incentive structures do not pit us against one another, the result, thanks to the increased levels of oxytocin and serotonin, is trust and cooperation. This is what work-life balance means. It has nothing to do with the hours we work or the stress we suffer. It has to do with where we feel safe. If we feel safe at home, but we don’t feel safe at work, then we will suffer what we perceive to be a work-life imbalance.”

Leaders of the organization just need to be conscious of these implications. They want the best for everyone so they just need to create this environment. They have the power in them for it if they assume the responsibility that comes with the role.

This "role" is not the rank. That doesn't make you a leader. Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.

Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up everything we are missing: time, energy, money, even food off their plate. Leaders eat last.

Part 3 — Reality

And that’s what trust is. We don’t just trust people to obey the rules, we also trust that they know when to break them. The rules are there for normal operations. The rules are designed to avoid danger and help ensure that things go smoothly. And though there are guidelines for how to deal with emergencies, at the end of the day, we trust the expertise of a special few people to know when to break the rules.

The responsibility of leaders is to teach their people the rules, train them to gain competency and build their confidence. At that point, leadership must step back and trust that their people know what they are doing and will do what needs to be done. In weak orgs without oversight, too many people will break the rules for personal gain. That’s what makes the orgs weak. In strong orgs, people will break the rules because it is the right thing to do for others.

Our confidence to do what’s right is determined by how trusted we feel by our leaders.

As much as we like to think that it’s our smarts that get us ahead, it is not everything. Our intelligence gives us ideas and instructions. But it is our ability to cooperate that actually helps us get those things done.

Trust is like lubrication. It reduces friction and creates conditions much more conducive to performance.

Part 4 — How We Got Here

Every generation seems to confound or revel against the generation before it. Each new generation embodies a set of values and beliefs molded by the events, experiences and technologies of their youth… which tend to be a little different from those of their parents.

The very concept of putting a number or a resource before a person flies directly in the face of the protection our anthropology says leaders are supposed to offer. It’s like parents putting the care of their car before the care of their child. It can rip the very fabric of the family.

Part 5 - The Abstract Challenge

The distance between us and the people affected by our decisions can have a large impact on lives. The more invisible the more abstract people will become. From there on they can quickly be reduced to numbers in an excel sheet and worst.

“When our relationships with customers or employees become abstract concepts, we naturally pursue the most tangible thing we can see—the metrics.”

The opposite is also true: the more visible the more attached we become.

“When we are able to physically see the positive impact of the decisions we make or the work we do, not only do we feel that our work was worth it, but it also inspires us to work harder and do more.”

That's where knowing the people we work with can make a difference. We can start looking at each other like family, feel responsible for their well-being, and in turn, those in the group start to express ownership for their leader. In a Marine platoon of about forty people, for example, they will often refer to their officer as “our” lieutenant. The same can't be said of the more higher rank officers, like “the” colonel.

You can't achieve this with just training for leaders or better pay. As leaders, we need to offer our time and energy to those in our care, and in turn, those managers would be more willing to give their time and energy to their subordinates. And so on. The people with customer-facing jobs will be then more likely to treat the customer better. Oxytocin and serotonin make us feel good when time and energy are given to us, which inspires us to give more to others.

Part 6 — Destructive Abundance

I can’t delegate my legal responsibility, relationships and knowledge. Everything else, however, I can ask others to take responsibility for. Even though the first we can’t be handed of they can be shared.

The goal of a leader is to give no orders. Leaders are to provide direction and intent and allow other to figure out what to do and how to get there.

Responsibility is not doing as we are told, that’s obedience. Responsibility is doing what is right.

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 expect that both people and companies will make mistakes and dumb choices. We’re perfectly at peace with that. Making all the right decisions is not what engenders trust between people or between people and orgs. Being honest does.

There is something about getting together out of context that makes us more open to getting to know someone. Whether we’re bonding with colleagues with whom we play on the company softball team, out to lunch or on a business trip with someone we don’t know well, when the responsibilities of our jobs are not forcing us to work together, when our competing interests are put aside for a while, we seem to be quite open to seeing others as people rather than coworkers or competitors.

Customer will never love a company, until the employees love it first.

Part 7 - A Society of Addicts

“Leadership is about taking responsibility for lives and not numbers. Managers look after our numbers and our results and leaders look after us.”

We are biologically tied to the results of our work. We receive shots of dopamine with a marker we hit or a goal achieved. The problem is how our work environments have unbalanced this reward system.

The majority of our incentives are based on hitting number-based goals like X% growth every year and receive number-based rewards for doing it. Even worse is how these goals might be defined per individual and/or for short-term periods, like quarters or a year. There is nothing that encourages a fight for a cause, a bigger purpose, a long-term vision. It can promote however internal competition, between individuals and teams, making the whole organization unsafe from internal threats and vulnerable from outside ones.

Part 8 - Becoming a Leader

The reason why small companies often win the innovation game against large corporations is all about survival.

Small companies have limited resources and need everyone's effort to survive. Like a tribe, everyone knows everyone and that means that if they fail they personally know everyone affected. These conditions are rare at large companies, with plenty of resources and no imminent danger of disappearing.

“Leaders of successful organizations, if they wish to innovate or command loyalty and love from their people, must reframe the struggles their companies face not in absolute terms but in terms relative to their success. In other words, the dangers and opportunities that exist outside the Circle of Safety should be exaggerated to suit the size of the organization itself.”

These struggles must be meaningful and not an abstract metric or a number in a spreadsheet. What gets us moving is when leaders offer us a reason to become a better version of ourselves and, with it, we take an entire organization to the next level. We need challenges that are bigger than the resources we have available, a vision of the world that we want to make a reality, a reason to come to work and love it.

“When a company declares that its cause is to become a global leader or to become a household name or to make the best products, those are selfish desires with no intended value to anyone beyond the company itself (and often not even everyone in the company). Those causes can’t inspire humans because those causes aren't causes. No one wakes up in the morning inspired to champion that. In other words, none of them is a cause bigger than the company.”

We thrive when we need to find solutions to improve the lives of those in our care. Like a parent, being a leader is a commitment to the wellbeing of our people and to make sacrifices for their best interests. It's hoping that after we are gone we leave behind people that will take our mission as theirs and do it better than us.

The mission, if we should choose to accept it:

“Let us all be the leaders we wish we had.”

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