Leaders Eat Last

Why this book?

Recently, in one of my New Rules: Leaders, You Go first, I referenced this book and mentioned I would do a summary.

Sinek starts with a story of the Marines. He says that leaders eat last after the troops have eaten. Actually, I checked this out with Mike Dixon, who was our maintenance engineer, where I was principal and a former Marine He confirmed that this was true. He said they eat the same stuff but they eat last

I worked in a federal educational laboratory for a couple of years. They had funding to work with low performing schools. Coming in during the third year of a five year grant, I asked the team, what have we found out in the first two years. The responses were, “leadership matters.” When we look at research about successful schools, leadership is usually identified as key.

Sinek, Simon. (2014). Leaders East Last. New York: Portfolio/Penguin

Our educational institutions and training programs today are focused not on developing great leaders but on training effective managers. Leaders Eat Last is an effort to change this paradigm. The fact is we need managers to make organizations operate AND we need leadership to create the conditions for the best people make learning job one for staff and students.

John Quincy Adams “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Sinek wrote about Bob Chapman who took over a failing company. The first thing he did was sit down with employees to find out what people had to say. He felt if he didn’t establish trust, not much would change. Chapman and others, like him, didn’t set out to change their employees—they set out to change the conditions in which their employees operate.

As I have written before, it is the culture that makes systems work. It the culture is combative, the emotional costs will increase and the bottom line, whether it is money or learning, will suffer. Chapman later said that most fathers (and mother even more so) would do anything for their kids to help them be successful. In that way, a leader is like the head of the family whether mother or father.

This is what it means to be a leader. This is what it means to build a strong company. Being a leader is like being a parent, and the company is like a new family to join. One that will care for us like we are their own … in sickness and in health. And if we are successful, our people will take on our company s name as a sign of the family to which they are loyal.

How do we create a sense of belonging and a commitment to something larger than ourselves? It is moving from “me” to “we.” No one, at any level in the organization, accomplishes much alone. We always accomplish more in concert with others. Every principalship I have had was successful because of the administrative assistants (sometimes called secretaries and aides) and certified colleagues. Nothing got better because of me alone.

A story Sinek included that demonstrates the importance of culture is ‘The Circle of Safety.’
The Circle of Safety
A lion used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them, but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four. Aesop, sixth century B.C.

Strong leaders, in contrast, extend the Circle of Safety to include every single person who works for the organization. Self-preservation is unnecessary and fiefdoms are less able to survive. We cannot tell people to trust us. We cannot instruct people to come up with big ideas. And we certainly can’t demand that people cooperate. Leaders want to feel safe too. No matter what place we occupy in the pecking order, every single one of us wants to feel like we are valued by the others in the group.

Creating the right culture has extended effects on people. A study by two researchers at the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College found that a child’s sense of well-being is affected less by the long hours their parents put in at work and more by the mood their parents are in when they come home. Children are better off having a parent who works into the night in a job they love than a parent who works shorter hours but comes home unhappy. This is the influence our jobs have on our families.

Sinek gives us a short lesson on brain chemicals. There are four primary chemicals in our body that contribute to all our positive feelings that I will generically call “happy”: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. The first two chemicals, endorphins and dopamine, work to get us where we need to go as individuals—to persevere, find food, build shelters, invent tools, drive forward and get things done. I like to call these the “selfish” chemicals. The other two, serotonin and oxytocin, are there to incentivize us to work together and develop feelings of trust and loyalty. I like to call these the “selfless” chemicals.

• E Is for Endorphins: The Runner’s High. ENDORPHINS SERVE ONE purpose and one purpose only: to mask physical pain. It has to do with survival. ‘You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time,’ Stephen Colbert. Laughing actually releases endorphins.
• D Is for Dopamine: An Incentive for Progress. It is responsible for the feeling of satisfaction after we’ve finished an important task, completed a project, reached a goal or even reached one of the markers on our way to a bigger goal. This can get us in trouble when our addictions are fed by dopamine. This is why video games, drugs, etc. can have negative effects. Our job as leaders is to have dopamine as a result of doing good work and seeing others benefit.
• S Is for Serotonin: The Leadership Chemical. ‘I HAVEN’T HAD an orthodox career and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect,” said Sally Field as she stood on the stage gripping the Oscar she’d just won for her role in the film Places in the Heart. It is the feeling we get when we perceive that others like or respect us. As social animals, we are more than want the approval of those in our tribe, we need it. It really matters. We all want to feel valued for the effort we put forth for the good of others in the group or the group itself.

• O Is for Oxytocin: Chemical Love. OXYTOCIN IS MOST people’s favorite chemical. It’s the feeling of friendship, love or deep trust. Without oxytocin, we wouldn’t want to perform acts of generosity. Without oxytocin, there would be no empathy. Oxytocin is about instant gratification; oxytocin is long lasting. The more time we spend with someone, the more we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable around them.

My favorite definition of love is giving someone the power to destroy us and trusting they won’t use it. Inside a Circle of Safety, we feel like we belong. Our brains are wired to release oxytocin when in the presence of our tribe and Cortisol, the chemical that produces the feeling of anxiety when we feel vulnerable and alone.

The best thing about oxytocin is not only doing the person who receives recognition or positive comments gets a release of oxytocin. The next best thing is the person who is giving the recognition and the people who witness it also get a shot of oxytocin.

Barbara Fredrickson (2009) wrote a book called Positivity. She basically said we need about three positives to counteract one negative. What is your ratio at your workplace? What is your ratio at home? What ratio are you giving?

A person who is good to others in the group is good for the species. People who claim to be happy live 35 percent longer than less happy people. The study of 3,800 men and women aged fifty-two to seventy-nine found that those who rated their happiness the highest were far less likely to die in the following five years than those who were the least happy, after accounting for demographic factors such as wealth, occupation and health-related behavior such as smoking and obesity. Oxytocin boosts our immune systems, makes us better problem solvers and makes us more resistant to the addictive qualities of dopamine.

And we also have to consider the Big C. Cortisol is responsible for the stress and anxiety we experience when something goes bump in the night. It is the first level of our fight or flight response. Like a high-security alarm system that automatically calls the police, Cortisol is designed to alert us to possible danger and prepare us to take extra measures to protect ourselves to raise our chances of survival.

You probably have heard the phrase, ‘perception is reality.’ Whether the danger is real or imagined, the stress we feel is real. Unlike our rational minds, our bodies do not try to assess what the danger is. So, if you feel under siege, real or imagined, at work or home, the repeated release of cortisol has long-term consequences. If we work in environments in which trust is low, relationships are weak or transactional and stress and anxiety are normal, we become much more vulnerable to illness.

Raising children has many lessons for running a company. Both require a balancing of short-term needs and long-term goals. “First and foremost, your commitment to them is for life,” Kim says. “Ultimately, you want them to become better people.”

I wrote recently that we should talk not text. My point was that positive relationships exist where there is a connection. Emails and texts have words. Emotion, inflection, and meaning can suffer when we only deal with the words. There is no algorithm for a successful relationship—between people or with companies.

This is one of the reasons that Menlo Innovations, a software development company does not use email. Richard Sheridan (2013) wrote the book Joy, Inc. He describes how they communicate. He called it high voice technology. It comes preinstalled in humans.

Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry- Wehmiller, is fond of saying, “No one wakes up in the morning to go to work with the hope that someone will manage us. We wake up in the morning and go to work with the hope that someone will lead us.” The problem is, for us to be led, there must be leaders we want to follow.

Sinek ends the book with a few rules. The most valuable thing we can do if we are to truly serve our constituents is to know them personally.

• Keep It Real – Bring People Together. Just as money can’t buy love, the Internet can’t buy deep, trusting relationships. Relationships can certainly start online, but they only become real when we meet face-to-face.
• Keep It Manageable— Obey Dunbar’s Number. Professor Dunbar figured out that people simply cannot maintain more than about 150 close relationships.
• Give Them Time, Not Just Money. Money is an abstraction of tangible resources or human effort. If you have kids and a spouse, you know time is worth more than money. And it’s not just time. The energy we give also matters. Giving time and energy actually does more to impact the impression others have of us than giving money
• Be Patient – The Rule of Seven Days and Seven Years. Jumping straight in, even if it ‘feels right,” is nothing short of gambling. It may work out, but the odds are against you. It is just as bad if we stay too long without ever feeling like we belong. If we’ve been at a job for seven years and still don t feel it… well, maybe it’s time to move on.

When I go into schools as a principal or a consultant I watch how staff interact with the leaders. Do they stop talking when the leader approaches? (Staff and students). How do they treat support staff? What does the leader talk about? Test scores? School community? Students? Staff relationships? Budgets? “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” Goethe
How people share information? Do they hoard it as a sign of power? Do they share it so everyone can know? Hearing one person’s solution to a problem can inform someone else how to solve a problem of their own. Isn’t this the idea of learning—to pass on our knowledge to others?

To paraphrase Arnold Toynbee. “Civilizations don’t usually die from takeover. Civilizations die from suicide.” We have to create the culture we would like to work in.

Leadership, true leadership, is not the bastion of those who sit at the top. It is the responsibility of anyone who belongs to the group. Though those with formal rank may have authority to work at greater scale, each of us has a responsibility to keep the Circle of Safety strong. We must all start today to do little things for the good of others … As the motto of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “one day at a time.”

Let us all be the leaders we wish we had.


Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York: Crown

Sheridan, Richard. (2013). Joy, Inc. New York: Penguin