Book Review: Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t

Book Review – Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t

If you are a leader, think you are a leader, or aspire to be a leader, then you need to read Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t*. I believe this book does a great job explaining why some teams excel and others fail. A lot of the success and failure can be closely tied to leadership. In his book, Sinek explained the science behind good and bad leadership and team performance in terms that I could easily understand. Having worked in two distinct cultures: military and higher education. I am aware of a difference in leadership. I certainly have my preferences and I am happy to report I believe they align with what Sinek shared.

Leaders Eat Last is the first book that I have read for 2017. It is a book on a topic I love reading about and thus fit nicely into the 2017 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. What I was not expecting was that this book would help address some concerns I was having with a couple of organizations I belonged to and the conflict between money and people. As I have come to understand the difference between leadership and management. Management is about resources and things, and leadership is about people. Management is about maintaining the status quo, and leadership is about disrupting the status quo. Finally, it is a leader’s responsibility to take care of the mission and his people. The people take care of the mission thus it is essential to take care of the people. Sinek addressed these issues in his book.

Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Lastis 244 pages long spread across eight parts and 27 chapters. Here are the different parts:

  • Our need to feel safe
  • Powerful forces
  • Reality
  • How we got here
  • The abstract challenge
  • Destructive abundance
  • A society of addicts
  • Becoming a leader

In Lt. Gen. George Flynn’s foreword, he said,

“I know of no case study in history that describes an organization that has been managed out of a crisis. Every single one of them was led. Yet a good number of our educational institutions and training programs today are focused not on developing great leaders but on training effective managers.” (Sinek, 2014, p. ix).

Sinek used storytelling extensively throughout his book. He began his book with a story about an Air Force pilot providing air support for a special operations unit in Afghanistan. Throughout this story, he explained how a leader must have empathy for those who work for the organization and those in the organization must have empathy for everyone else in the organization. Sinek related how the organization breaks down and does not function to its best when employees are treated simply as resources or assets that are expendable.

Many organizations indicate they are one big family; however, when times get tough, they then throw their “family members” to the curb. This is no way to treat a family member, at least, I don’t think it is. To get the best out of employees, they must feel they are in a safe environment. When I was at my previous job, the university put money before people and 45 people were suddenly terminated from their positions. This affected morale across the organization. It was not that they were let go, it was also how they were let go. They were gathered in a room, told they no longer had a job, and police escorted them to their offices to gather their belongings. This act destroyed a lot of trust with the university.

Throughout the book, Sinek discussed the “Circle of Safety.” Basically, leaders need to create conditions where employees feel safe to work. Employees should not have to worry about others within their organization, and instead, should be focused on external threats. “Weak leaders are the ones who only extend the benefits of the Circle of Safety to their fellow senior executives and a chosen few others” (Sinek, 2014, p. 23). As Sinek continued, when there is no protection, then individuals will create their own organizations or tribes to increase their protection. This is not healthy for an organization. If individuals do not feel loyalty, they will leave to find another organization where they will have the support they need. A poor working environment also negatively affects health as reported in the Whitehall Studies.

In the second part of the book, Sinek explained the impact four different chemicals had on the person and the work environment. He referred to these chemicals throughout the book. These chemicals include Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin (E.D.S.O.). Endorphins and dopamine are the selfish chemicals that help to satisfy our reward system and keep us on task. Serotonin and Oxytocin are the selfless chemicals that are essential for the circle of safety. If there is a proper balance of these chemicals, the individual is protected as well as the group. The problem is that a lot of organizations do not do the right things to ensure the selfless chemicals are being activated enough. Sinek does a great job providing examples.

Sinek then outlined the effects cortisol has on the individual and the organization. Cortisol is released when there is a threat. However, when an individual constantly feels a threat because of the work environment, it is not healthy for the individual and organization. The crazy thing is that leaders can help ensure there is a reduction of cortisol and a healthy balance of E.D.S.O.

Starting with part four, Sinek provided a history lesson regarding why we have so many issues in the workplace. It seems that the Baby Boomers are a large part of the problem. They are associated with the “Me” generation.  Sinek shared a number of examples of how the Boomer generation has impacted organizations. Stories the Sinek told include PATCO (When layoffs and firings became vogue), Milgram experiments, Peanut Corporation of America, Titanic life rafts, the downfall of Goldman Sachs, Stanley O’Neal and the downfall of Merrill Lynch, BP, and many others. Essentially, as Sinek reported it, these leaders and organizations put profits before people. In each case, the organization suffered.

Sinek also shared examples of organizations and leaders who understood the value of the people and achieved success. Some of these leaders and companies include Bob Chapman and HayssenSandiacre, 3M knowledge sharing, David Marquet (see his book Turn This Ship Around), Jim Sinegal and Costco, and more.

Leaders Eat Last is a book about leadership. It is about what you should be doing and it has countless examples of what you shouldn’t be doing. A leader cannot lead if there is no one to lead. If you do not take care of your people, your mission will suffer and people will leave. This does not mean coddle them, this means protecting them and helping them excel. I believe that Leaders Eat Last should be required reading for all the leaders I have known, do know, and will know. It does not matter what level in the organization you are in or the type of organization you are in, there are lessons to be learned. When you read it, let me know what you think.

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