Book Review: Leaders Eat Last

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I adore the movie The Little Foxes with Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall. It’s based on one of those lovely 1930s morality plays about the dangers of unbridled greed. Its title comes from the Bible’s Song of Solomon:

Catch for us the foxes,
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards,
our vineyards that are in bloom.

The general interpretation of this passage is that anyone who does not allow others to flourish will be stopped. In the film, Bette Davis’s character, Regina, and her brothers plan to build a cotton mill that threatens the well-being of their town but will make the family very rich. Regina conspires against her husband and brothers and even her own daughter in order to seize a leadership position within the family. One of the most powerful scenes is when Marshall’s character, Horace, tells his ruthless wife what he thinks about her and her brothers’ relentless attempts to make money at any cost:

I’m sick of your brothers and their dirty tricks to make a dime. There must be better ways of getting rich than building sweatshops and pounding the bones of the town to make dividends for you to spend. You’ll wreck this town, you and your brothers. You’ll wreck this country, you and your kind, if they let you.

His speech reminded me of Simon Sinek’s terrific book, Leaders Eat Last.  After hearing Sinek speak at Leadercast in May, I bought the audiobook and listened to it twice in the car. I then bought a print copy of the book in order to digest the detail. So, yes, I liked it a lot.

Leaders Eat Last takes its title from the US military, where the highest ranking officers traditionally eat last as a way to show their people that a good leader puts the needs of his or her people first. The idea seems refreshing at a time when stories of corporate greed and CEOs stopping at nothing to preserve their own bonus pools abound. Certainly, today’s culture of relentless shareholder value creation has led to a sense that business is “building sweatshops and pounding the bones of the town to make dividends.” The news is filled with stories of dead peasant policies and regular layoffs and elaborate tax avoidance strategies and other examples of corporate leaders putting neither their people nor their broader stakeholders first. When Burger King and Tim Horton’s recently announced their partnership, the media focused on the deal as an aggressive tax play rather than as a strategic alliance (I like to call the tax angle the Double Double Irish with a Dutchie sandwich. Har har.) Perhaps the thought of marrying two companies for reasons other than a short-term goosing of the stock seems unfathomable even though there are potentially a lot of other reasons why the partnership might make sense.

Sinek blames this climate of cynicism on the fact that the social contract between leaders and their followers has been broken. Leaders are supposed to protect their followers and the need for such people is wired into our very physiology as part of our instinct to survive:

We … are not like crocodiles. Though we may share the primitive, reptilian portion of our brain with them, our brain continued to grow beyond its reptile roots. We are anything but loners. The addition of the mammalian layer of our brain helped us to become highly functioning social animals. And for good reason. If we weren’t adapted to live in tribes and cooperate, we would have died off long ago. We don’t have thick scaly skin to make us less vulnerable to attack. We don’t have rows of sharp teeth like a great white shark, able to keep chomping even after we lose a few. We’re just not strong enough to survive alone, let alone thrive.

In order to figure out how to best distribute food, we evolved into hierarchical animals and elected the strongest members of the group to act as leaders who could allocate the resources in a way that best ensured the survival of the group:

Those who work hardest to help others succeed will be seen by the group as the leader or the “alpha” of the group. And being the alpha – the strong, supportive one of the group, the one willing to sacrifice time and energy so that others may gain – is a prerequisite for leadership.

Based on his understanding of anthropology, Sinek has crafted this definition of leadership:

Leaders are the ones who run headfirst into the unknown. They rush towards the danger. They put their own interests aside to protect us or to pull us into the future. Leaders would sooner sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours. And they would never sacrifice what is ours to save what is theirs. This is what it means to be a leader. It means they choose to go first into danger, headfirst towards the unknown. And when we feel sure they will keep us safe, we will march behind them and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life and proudly call ourselves their followers.

There are not many leaders in the current corporate world who fit this description and, thus, it’s not terribly surprising that employees do not feel particularly motivated. As Sinek points out in the book, “According to the Deloitte Shift Index, 80 percent of people are dissatisfied with their jobs.” Although their dissatisfaction won’t necessarily drive them to quit, they certainly won’t be bringing their best selves to the job. According to the G20 Innovation Report, the US is down 7% in domestic innovation from 2003 to 2012: people who are dissatisfied do not bring their energy or ideas to work.

Sinek provides a powerful explanation of why we feel demotivated when we do not have leaders who care for us. He explores the role of  human physiology in connecting us to the leaders of our current tribes: namely our families, communities and the workplace.

Almost all the the systems in our bodies have evolved to help us find food, stay alive and advance the species. However, for a lot of the world, and certainly throughout the developed world, finding food and avoiding danger no longer preoccupy our days. We no longer hunt and gather, at least not in the caveman sense. In our modern world, advancing our careers and trying to find happiness and fulfillment are the definition of success. But the systems inside us that guide our behaviour and decisions still function as they did tens of thousands of years ago. Our primitive minds still perceive the world around us in terms of threats to our well-being or opportunities to find safety. If we understand how these systems work, we are better equipped to reach our goals. At the same time, the groups in which we work are better able to succeed and thrive as well.

When we do not feel protected by our leaders, we are hardwired to feel anxious and distrustful. Every time a corporation announces a round of layoffs to increase their quarterly numbers, it quite literally makes us feel sick. Sinek briefly discusses what we have learned about human behaviour from the fields of neuroscience and anthropology (also described in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Andrew O’Keeffe’s Hardwired Humans). He then spends considerable time describing the powerful effect of hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, cortisol and dopamine:

Mother Nature figured out a lot earlier than our bosses…to use an incentive system to condition us to do certain things to achieve desired results. In the case of our biology, our bodies employ a system of positive and negative feelings – happiness, pride, joy or anxiety, for example – to promote behaviours that will enhance our ability to get things done and to cooperate. Whereas our bosses might reward us with an end-of-year bonus, our bodies reward us  for working to keep ourselves and those around us alive and looked after with chemicals that make us feel good.

Good leaders understands how people tick and know that when employees feels secure and valued, they are much more effective than when they feel threatened. A good leader provides opportunities for employees to release feel-good chemicals by giving out praise, making people feel part of a team, building a sense of pride in one’s work, and helping people complete assigned tasks. A good leader also understands how to  minimize the release of negative hormones that flood the nervous system when people feel unsafe. This can be accomplished through having open communications, providing a sense of job security, and helping people navigate change.

Sinek believes that building a culture where employees feel safe and valued is critical to a company’s long-term success. Unfortunately, this can be hard to do when a CEO feels pressured by shareholders to continually trim costs by firing staff, decreasing levels of customer service, and making people do more with less in order to increase profits. And when executive compensation plans reward executives for putting the people they are meant to protect in harm’s way, the leader is no longer fulfilling his anthropological purpose:

When cultural standards shift from character,values or beliefs to performance, numbers and other impersonal dopamine-driven measurements, our behaviour-driving chemicals fall out of balance and our will to trust and cooperate dilutes…. We lose our sense of history, of responsibility to the past and shared tradition. We care less about belonging. In this kind of weak culture, we veer away from doing “the right thing” in favor of doing “the thing that’s right for me.

Sinek is an excellent storyteller and whether he is telling the story of military hero Johnny Bravo or Bob Chapman of Barry Wehmiller or the culture at 3M, he shows us clearly what good leadership looks like. More importantly, he shows us how effective it is at achieving long-term results. Sinek’s belief is that “capitalism actually does better when when we work as we were designed – when we have a chance to fulfill our very human obligations.” Sinek knows that the key to strong leadership lies not in understanding management theory – Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. all lacked an MBA –  but rather in understanding human behaviour. Great leaders have a deep understanding of the social code between leaders and the led. They understand what followers expect of them and uphold their end of the bargain.

At the end of The Little Foxes (mild spoiler ahead), Bette Davis’s character gets her way. She bests her husband and her brothers and will likely become a very wealthy women. But she is left all alone, the punishment for the alpha who has been blessed with many gifts but does not protect those who rely on her. She is expelled from the tribe and ends up the leader of nobody: according to Sinek, an anthropologically fitting end.