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

Simon Sinek

Penguin Group, 2014

Reviewed by Johny Van Aerde,

MD, PhD

 

BOOK REVIEW

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Very few ideas are actually new. In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek reframes several concepts of the theory and practice of servant-leadership for current times and surrounds the new frame with great narratives. He submits that our anthropological neurochemistry makes it natural for us to protect each other and show empathy. This, in turn, leads to an environment of trust in which organizations can thrive. The “circle of safety” created as a result connects people to the greater purpose of the workplace.

 

Creating safety goes back at least 40 000 years and helped us survive in and for the group. The evolutionary neurochemistry of leadership and followership, on which the circle of safety is based, is the thread that Sinek weaves throughout the book. He calls endorphins and dopamine the selfish chemicals and serotonin and oxytocin the selfless chemicals. Top

 

Endorphins mask pain with pleasure, and dopamine creates a feeling of satisfaction; they are the incentive chemicals of goal achievement and task completion, of short-term gratification at the cost of long-term accomplishment. Those same chemicals spike our ego and trigger a command-and-control leadership style. Both substrates, particularly dopamine, are highly addictive. Top

 

According to Sinek, it is our chemical dependence on dopamine that plays a major role in creating or preventing a culture where employees feel trusted and safe. When an organization focuses heavily on performance by aiming exclusively at goals and bonuses, and if the dopamine fix of its members is the primary reward, then the organization becomes addicted to numbers and ignores the people.

 

In contrast, serotonin, the leadership chemical, and oxytocin, the chemical of trust and belonging, are the substrates leading to contribution and collaboration. Both encourage pro-social behaviour and help us form bonds of trust and friendship, so that we will look out for each other. Although the effects of oxytocin in maternal (and paternal) bonding and trust building have been researched, the effects of serotonin on social behaviour are less known. Serotonin gives us a feeling of pride, of others liking or respecting us, making us feel confident and raising our status in the social group. Top

 

A healthy synergy between the four chemicals can be disrupted easily in today’s business environment. Today’s world focuses excessively on numbers, goals, and bonuses, and people have become generally dopamine-drunk, not just in business. That dopamine drunkenness short-circuits the human animal into looking out for itself, to being suspicious and non-supportive of others. The balance is disturbed even more by stress-induced production of cortisol, which further inhibits oxytocin production.

 

Consequently, people will invest time and energy in guarding themselves against politics and other dangers, trying to survive at the cost of collaboration. The absence of the circle of safety ultimately leads to the decline of the organization. Sinek submits that money and numbers have replaced people, flying in the face of the protection our leaders are supposed to offer us from an anthropologic point of view. He gives great examples of how firing people to meet short-term financial goals has rarely led to thriving companies, and how other companies have been successful in the long-term by focusing on people rather than those short-term goals. Top

 

Sinek cites General Electric (GE) as an example of a dopamine-driven organization, in which Jack Welch used to fire the bottom 10% of staff each year. As examples of organizations based on the anthropological, evolutionary concepts of collaboration and safety-creation, he mentions Costco, Southwest Airlines, and 3M (and some aspects of WestJet). Under the leadership of Jeff Sinegal, Costco’s market value climbed steadily, unlike GE’s rollercoaster performance, and its accomplishments now exceed those of GE.

 

Servant-leadership is a choice to serve others, and trust is the biological reaction to the belief that somebody else has our well-being at heart. When we feel the circle of safety around us, we work hard to see our leader’s vision come to life. Top

 

Too many analyst-experts pressuring for short-term goals impede an organization’s investment in long-term innovative projects and kill innovation and creativity in people who no longer feel they belong to the circle of safety. This leads to distancing and abstraction, and people no longer feel connected with each other or with the organization’s purpose and vision.

 

In Leaders Eat Last, one recognizes elements of other well-written books and research studies, including Great by Choice,1 Generation Me,2 The Emotional Brain,3 and The Social Animal.4 Sinek himself has no research or academic background, so he does not offer new elements, but he is very good at creating new frames by integrating and re-interpreting theories and concepts that already exist. Top

 

I hesitate to recommend this book to physicians, unless they are studying leadership. However, while reading the book, I was enticed to reflect on how some of Sinek’s thinking applies to several components of our health care system. Have we also lost the balance of the four hormones in health care? Are too many analyst-experts pressuring for short-term goals, ignoring long-term needs and killing the innovation and creativity of people who no longer feel safe in their professional circles?

 

Sinek’s book also makes us reflect on where our world is heading and how we can live more according to our anthropologic evolution. Leaders Eat Last is an interesting book that provides a new perspective on known concepts of leadership. However, it is not on my “suggested reading” list of books on leadership for physicians. Top

 

References

1.Collins J, Hansen MT.  Great by choice: uncertainty, chaos, and luck – why some thrive despite them all. New York: HarperCollins; 2011.

2.Twenge JM. Generation me. New York: Free Press; 2006.

3.LeDoux J. The emotional brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon & Schuster; 1996.

4.Brooks, D. The social animal: the hidden sources of love, character, and achievement. New York: Random House; 2011.

 

Author

Johny Van Aerde, MD, MA, PhD, FRCPC, is past president of the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders and editor of the Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership.

 

Top

 

Very few ideas are actually new. In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek reframes several concepts of the theory and practice of servant-leadership for current times and surrounds the new frame with great narratives. He submits that our anthropological neurochemistry makes it natural for us to protect each other and show empathy. This, in turn, leads to an environment of trust in which organizations can thrive. The “circle of safety” created as a result connects people to the greater purpose of the workplace.