Why ‘Leaders Eat Last’

What makes a good leader? It’s a question many have pondered. To some, leadership has easily recognizable qualities. For others, leadership characteristics aren’t always clear — they just know a leader when they see one.

Leadership in business is constantly under the microscope. With each passing decade, as industries shift and work styles change, the issue of what makes an effective business leader has taken on different meanings.

Figure 4: TM0315_Insight_Sinek

Simon Sinek

To Simon Sinek, author of “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t,” leaders are not simply those with authority. They are selfless figures willing to relinquish their best interest for the betterment of those they lead.

Talent Management spoke with Sinek on the topic. Edited excerpts follow.

Your book is titled ‘Leaders Eat Last.’ What does that mean?

It comes from a conversation I had with a three-star general in the Marine Corps. When I met him doing research for the book, I asked him, ‘What makes the Marines so good at what they do?’ And he replied simply, ‘Officers eat last.’ And if you’ve been to any chow hall on any Marine base anywhere in the world, when they line up to eat, they actually line up in rank order — the most junior marine eats first and the most senior Marine eats last.

Even though the more senior people are more entitled to eat first, they don’t. And it is just one of the funny manifestations, one of the ways in which they view leadership, the way it shows their views of leadership.

How has leadership as a skill evolved in the past decade?

I think it has devolved. I think it has gone backwards. I think more and more leadership is viewed as rank and authority, where the people at the top of the organization think that they’re leaders just because they’re at the top of the organization. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I know many people who sit at the top of an organization who have authority but they’re not leaders, and we do as they tell us because they have authority over us — but we wouldn’t follow them. And I know many people will say the bottom of an organization has no authority, but they’ve made a choice — the choice to look after the person to the left of them, and the choice to look after the person to the right of them.

This is what makes a leader. A leader is the one that is willing to sacrifice their owninterests for the good of the lives of others. And in our day and age, those in leadership positions believe that they’re entitled to more. Just look at how quickly we view layoffs. Here are people that are willing to make decisions to sacrifice the lives — the very livelihood of the people that work for them — so they can make the numbers this year. So they can protect their own salaries and protect their own bonuses and look good to an external, disinterested constituent. This is the furthest thing from leadership.

What are the defining qualities of great leaders?

Leaders first and foremost understand that the strength of the organization comes from the people in the organization, not from their own genius. There’s a false belief that a leader has to be the smartest person to gain the credibility of the troops. It’s just not the case. The greatest leaders are the ones that trust that people often know more than they do. The people at the top have all theauthority, but the people at the bottom have all the information. And the opportunity is not to push the information up, but to push the authority down.

This is defining of great leaders. There’s something very interesting that happens to people when they get promoted. When we’re junior, our only job is to be really good at what we do. And the company will train us, and the company will teach us how to do our jobs; sometimes we go to school. Your job is to be good at what you do. That’s it.

As you get more senior, they promote you because you’re good at what you do, and at some point, if you’re really good at what you do, they’ll promote you into a position of being responsible for the people who do the job that you used to do, but they don’t teach us how to do that. And so that’s why we get managers and not leaders, because we’re asking people to oversee the work of others that they actually do know how to do it better — that’s what got them the promotion.

You use a term in the book called ‘the circle of safety.’ What is that?

The circle of safety is a very simple, anthropological concept, which is our very success as a species hinges on the fact that we’re social animals. Our very survival and ability to thrive depends on our ability to trust and cooperate. In other words, I can trust that I can fall asleep at night because I trust for those in my tribe — I trust that they will watch for danger while I’m sleeping.

If I don’t trust the people in my tribe, I can’t fall asleep at night. It’s not a good system. And so it’s essential that we feel a sense of trust with those with whom we work, and that is borne out of the circle of safety. When we feel safe amongst our own, the natural human inclination is trust and cooperation. When there’s a circle of safety, when the conditions are provided, when leaders create an environment in which the people don’t fear each other.

What advice do you have for talent managers wanting to create great leaders, not managers?

The most important thing is that leadership is not a rank and it’s not an event. So often these leadership trainings are a three-day off-site [program] of which half of it is rubbish. Leadership is a practice, it’s a skill, and like any skill the better you practice, the better you get at it. It’s the practice of putting your interests aside for the lives of others.

For example, you’re driving to work and someone wants into your lane in front of you. Do you pull your car forward or do you let them in? That’s the practice of leadership, because you’re putting your interests aside for someone else.

I think any good leadership training has to equip people not only with a clear definition of what a leader is and a leader’s responsibility, but also gives them some tools to practice. If you want to get into shape, your trainer will show you some exercises that you can do, and if you do them, if you have the discipline, it will get easier and easier and you will get stronger and stronger.