Why Leaders Should Always Eat Last - Simon Sinek Interview

Feb 19, 2014
14 Min Read

I recently spoke with one of the most popular TED speakers in history, Simon Sinek. Sinek has written a new book called, "Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t," which talks about the real role that leaders play and why they should put their employees first. He's also the author of best-selling book, "Start with Why." He has shared his ideas with companies big and small, members of Congress and the highest levels of the U.S. military. In this brief interview, he talks about what most people get wrong when it comes to leadership, what the most important qualities of a leader are, a few examples of successful leaders and more.

Dan Schawbel: What do most people get wrong about leadership and why?

Simon Sinek: Most people think leadership is about being in charge. Most people think leadership is about having all the answers and being the most intelligent person or the most qualified person in the room. The irony is that it is the complete opposite. Leadership is about empowering others to achieve things they did not think possible. Leadership is about pointing in the direction, articulating a vision of the world that does not yet exist. Then asking help from others to insure that vision happens. Leadership is like parenting. A parent does not do everything for their kid. A parent that does everything for their kid produces a kid with no self-confidence. If our parents fixed everything for us and did not allow us to do anything on our own, or intervened every single time, we would all grow up to be completely dependent. The reason we grow up to be healthy adults is because our parents played this game of giving us responsibility, disciplining us when necessary, letting us try, letting us fail. No matter what we know they are there to support us and see us do well. Leaders are exactly the same.

Schawbel: What are the most important qualities of a highly effective leader? How do companies find leaders with these qualities?

Sinek: Quality effective leaders have the confidence to trust others to try, succeed, and sometimes to fail. We very often confuse personality with leadership. In other words, leadership is not about being a nice person or not a nice person. Some good leaders are rough around the edges and some leaders are difficult. Some have difficult personalities and some are really nice to be around, but those are not the qualifications. The qualifications are their desire to see us achieve more, their desire to push us to be the best we can be. Not for their selfish gain, but because they believe that we have something to offer. The bad leaders are the ones that push hard so they can gain, who brow beat us so that they can receive the benefit of our hard work, not so we can enjoy the success.

Schawbel: Can you share an example of a company you have worked with that understands your definition of leadership and what it means? What makes them so special?

Sinek: There are a couple of examples; the United States Marine Corps is a fantastic example. Here is a group of people that trust each other with their lives. The amazing thing is that they do not always like each other, but they trust each other. This is an incredible thing. We think that we all have to like each other before we trust each other and that necessarily is not the case. In the Marine Corps, this is where the book title comes from, “Leaders Eat Last.” It comes from a conversation I had with a Marine Corp General, where I was asking him what makes the Marine’s so amazing and he told me, officers eat last. What he meant is that if you go to any Marine Corp Chow Hall anywhere in the world you will see the Marines lined up in rank order. The most senior person at the back of the line and the most junior person eats first. No one tells them they have to do it and it is not in any rule book. It is because of the way they view the responsibility of leadership. We think leadership is about rank and power, they think of leadership as the responsibility for other human beings. That leadership and rank may not go together. So it manifests in this remarkable way.

Another organization is a company called “Barry Wehmiller." It is a large manufacturing company in St. Louis run by a man named Bob Chapman. Bob believes that a company and leaders of the company have the responsibility of the precious lives of all the human beings that work there. He knows that every single person in his company is someone’s son and someone’s daughter and that it is his responsibility to take care of those precious lives. If you ask him, “What does your company do?” He says we build people to do extraordinary things. It's a manufacturing company, just good old fashion, blue collar manufacturing. But it is because of the way he views his responsibly to leadership to the health of these people, so they become better versions of themselves and that is why Barry Wehmiller is unbelievably successful. They managed to weather the economic down turn, they care about each other, morale is high, loyalty is high, innovation is incredible. They continue to outperform their competition year after year. Twenty percent year after year compounded growth the past twenty years.

Schawbel: From an employee perspective, what can you do when trapped in a job you do not like, working with people you do not get along with?

Sinek: More often than not when we do not like our work, it's not necessarily because of the work itself. But more often because of the people we work with and more importantly because of the lack of leadership. It is amazing how inspired and motivated we can be when we like the people and when we feel like we show up to work because our leaders care about our wellbeing. It is kind of incredible actually. So, when or if we "quote, unquote" do not like our work, it is probably because we do not feel safe where we go to work. So when you say, what can we do?, the irony is that the best thing we can do is, well one option, is to quit. You don't always have to quit, and quite frankly, option two is to try to help others solve the problem that you are struggling with.

Believe it or not, the success of alcoholics anonymous, for example, talks about the twelve step program. We all joke about the first step, which is to admit you have a problem. But it is the twelve steps that really matter. If you master eleven steps in alcoholics anonymous, which has been successfully doing this for eighty years or something, but not the twelfth, the odds are very high that you will start drinking again. But if you master the twelve steps the odds are that you will beat the disease, so the twelfth step is to help another alcoholic. It is to commit to helping another alcoholic, in other words, it comes from service, and we are all so preoccupied with ourselves. How can I get happy, how can I find the job I love, how can I become a millionaire, how can lose weight. Yet, the reality is that fulfillment, success and all of these good things comes from trying to help those that we care about to achieve those things. How can I help somebody I care about find the job they love?  How can I help somebody I care about find happiness in their work? And when we commit to service it actually biologically and anthropologically is more likely to lead to our own success and our own happiness.

Schawbel: What other types of sacrifices have you seen leaders make that would get a higher return for their companies?

Sinek: Sometimes it is mainly time and energy. Those are the most valuable sacrifices leaders can make. There is a technology company in New York called Next Jump that spends a lot of money on mentor, training, and exercise and health programs. Their investors looked at them with a scrutinizing eye and asked why they were spending all of this money on coaching and mentoring programs. Charlie Kim, the CEO, says, because he believe the responsibility of the company is to help the people, grow as people. If we can do that, then the company will grow as a company. So the sacrifice he makes is he fights the hard battles with the investors because he believes it is the right thing to do. In the course of time he has been proven right.

Another example of the kind of sacrifices you will find is when someone is having a performance issue. We do not yell at them or scream at them, we express empathy. If someone’s performance is down we do not say, 'Hey pick up your things here.' We do not yell and scream at them, we say, 'Are you okay?' The idea of putting our financials goal aside for one minute to express empathy for the human being for that work and saying, 'Are you okay?' That is part of the sacrifice. It is like when a player has a slump, we do not trade them, we coach them. It is the same with our employees. The best leaders come to the aid of their people, whose performance is down. Not come down harder on them.

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