Book Notes: Leaders Eat Last

The book title caught my eye because it’s something the Army has been doing for a long time.  One evening, while observing Marines eating dinner in the field, author Simon Sinek noticed that as a matter of routine, the most junior Marines ate first.  The highest ranking ones, the leaders, ate last.

Through this simple symbolic act, he saw how the Marine leadership communicates to the organization where their loyalties lie.  Leadership is not about perks and the advantages of position.  It’s about taking care of the group first, and serving yourself last.  It’s what makes organizations good.

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Leaders Eat Last - Simon Sinek

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In Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’’t, Sinek delves into the biological roots of this concept, relating it to how man’s survival in the earliest times relied upon the safety of the small group he lived in, and the leadership of the dominant “alpha” male.  The alpha, as leader, got his choice of the meat and mates, but he also was first to step up when the group was threatened from outside.  The well-being of the group came first.

The Circle of Safety

Sinek called this the circle of safety.  The leaders of the best organizations foster this sense of security and mutual trust, which allows people to focus on getting things done instead of worrying about protecting their backs.

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That circle still applies today.  Effective leaders build meaningful relationships with their teams.  For me, the meat of the book and the most actionable takeaways came when Sinek laid out five rules for leaders to build trust and strengthen the circle of safety:

  1. Keep it Real – Bring People Together. There is no substitute for face-to-face human interaction.  You cannot build the same bonds of trust virtually.  Even professional bloggers feel the need to have an annual conference where they can meet each other in person and connect.  Get eyeball to eyeball with your team.
  2. Keep it Manageable – Obey Dunbar’s Number. When groups get larger than 100-150 people, they become unmanageable for one leader.  It’s too hard for a leader to really get to know everyone or have meaningful interactions with all of them.  And mutual sense of ownership and responsibility breaks down.  Larger corporations should break down into sub-groups of no more than 150 each to be most effective.  There’s a good story about how the inventor of Goretex discovered this principle.
  3. Meet the People You Help. There is nothing like personal connection to make a task meaningful.  You can try to motivate your team by talking about the problem, or showing pictures of it.  But your people will work far harder if they have personally connected in some way with the people they are helping.  If you can get your team to personally see/touch/feel the impact of their work, they will be all the more motivated and dedicated.
  4. Give Them Time, Not Just Money. Just giving money to someone is not enough to make them loyal to you.  Investing time and energy in them is a much more powerful way to connect on a deeper level and build commitment.  Money means different things to different people, but time is the same for everyone – you only have so much of it, so where you spend it signals what you think is truly important.
  5. Be Patient – the Rule of Seven Days and Seven Years. Building trust takes time; it’s not immediate, which is at odds with our instant gratification society.

Other Points of Interest

For me, that was the meat of the book, but there were other interesting elements.

  • The basis for our behaviors is chemical; there are two “selfish” chemicals that cause us to act in our own best interests, and two “self-less” chemicals that make us want to help others; the actions of the leader can trigger which of these is flowing most often.
  • The relative scarcity of man’s early days has become what Sinek calls the “destructive abundance” of today. This has impacted the circle of safety, making it harder for people and leaders to see the need to work together.
  • He follows the development of two major corporations, General Electric, and Costco, looking at the very different leadership styles of their CEOs and the resulting impact over the course of several decades.
  • The book details a pivotal and very interesting psychological experiment from the 1960s that reveals that how we act depends on where we think our true allegiance / authority lies.

Leaders Eat Last:  The Takeaway

The book is a good, engaging read from start to finish.  Every chapter and section begins with a memorable story or illustration, which is then skillfully tied into the overall theme of the book.  Overall, it reinforces the idea of servant leadership and the importance of building trust through real human interaction.

One of my favorite lines from the book is when Lieutenant General George Flynn is quoted saying, “The cost of leadership is self-interest.”  Leaders eat last because they recognize the primacy of the group’s well-being, and that is the root of ultimate success.

Leaders Eat Last is a solid read and well worth having in your personal leadership library.
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