Leaders eat last

We want safety. And unsurprisingly, safety is also what we seek in the organisations that hire us. We give everything and more when we are in a circle of safety looking after each other; on the other hand, we withdraw when leaders offer us no sense of purpose beyond money and benefits.

There are four chemicals that are responsible for our happiness: two of them – endorphins and dopamine – help us get things done; two of them – serotonin and oxytocin – incentivize working together.

Most of the organisations we work for are designed around dopamine hits: hitting the numbers, achieving goals, being appreciated by a manager, and getting financial reward. While this might keep us focused on the short-term, it simply prevents us from building bonds with our co-workers and our leaders. If the system rewards individualism, everyone will look after themselves, and we will not feel safe: what will happen if I make a mistake? Is my colleague trying to backstab me? Are layoffs going to be planned if we do not meet this year’s targets?

To increase engagement and feel better we need higher levels of oxytocin. We need to feel accepted as part of the group and no longer suffer the anxiety of feeling like we are on the edges. While dopamine is instant gratification, oxytocin is a lasting feeling of calm and safety.

This is what work-life balance is about: where do we feel safe? If we feel protected both at work and in our personal life, then oxytocin can diminish the effect of stress.

And this is the role of leaders: build a circle of safety and extend it to include those working in the team.

Courage comes from above. Our confidence to do what’s right is determined by how trusted we feel by our leaders.

Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

Few great examples of what this means in practice.

  • Next Jump and its lifetime employment policy. When managers cannot take the easy way (firing people), they need to focus on making great hires and actually manage people (with coaching, developing, and training). The result is a 1% turnover rate in the engineering team.
  • Capt. Marquet turning the USS Santa FE from worst submarine of the USS Navy fleet to most successful. “The goal of a leader is to give no orders. Leaders are to provide direction and intent and allow others to figure out what to do and how to get there”.
  • James Sinegal, co-founder of Costco. While directive leaders outperform empowering leaders in the short term, in the long term higher levels of team-learning, coordination, empowerment and mental model development win. What’s more, empowering leaders leave a healthy company behind.
General Electric vs CostCo vs S&P500, graph from Leaders Eat Last

We live in an era of abundance, and the scale at which we are able to operate today is difficult for many of us to grasp. There are endless opportunities for growth, for improvements, for faster execution. We look at things on charts and reports, building distance between us and those we mean to serve. But distance also means that things start to lose their original meaning. Leaders can combat the abstraction by:

  • Having face-to-face interactions, rather than virtual;
  • Taking responsibility for the care and protection of those in their charge;
  • Making explicit what the benefit for others will be (instead of the benefit for us);
  • Giving their time and energy (instead of rewarding with money).

While many of us are disappointed in their current role and are perhaps thinking of quitting, much better results can be achieved by staying and starting to implement ourselves these principles at scale. Leaders are human beings as well, and they seek the same level of safety: when they are down, we can ask how are you? Our colleagues are human beings as well, and they seek the same level of safety: we can build a small circle of safety, and then expand it to other peers and other departments. We have the power to make changes.

Leadership is not a license to do less; it is a responsibility to do more. And that’s the trouble. Leadership takes work. It takes time and energy. The effects are not always easily measured and they are not always immediate. Leadership is always a commitment to human beings.

Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last
Leaders Eat Last, book cover

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