Leaders eat last - review

BOOKS: Some may find this leadership tome a bit too feel-good and idealistic, but why shouldn't rewards flow from doing the right thing, argues reviewer Stephen Vaughan.

by Stephen Vaughan
Last Updated: 29 Jan 2014

The title of this book sets the scene for Simon Sinek's gallant and bold thesis on how business leaders need to behave to extract the very best from their people.

Thankfully, Sinek, whose TED talk on how great leaders inspire action is one of the most viewed ever, hasn't gone down the well-trodden path of many business books.

There are no new leadership principles or theories thrown at you or over-complicated charts and tables, nor are there acronyms to memorise in order to 'make an impact' or 'smash targets', or indeed any other miracle cures for those among us in need of instant gratification.

The book was inspired by Sinek's conversation with a Marine Corps general who told him that 'officers eat last'. In the chow hall, junior marines eat first while the most senior officers take their place at the back of the line. Great leaders sacrifice their own comfort for the good of those in their care.

Within this fascinating book are a number of thought-provoking, real-life examples of how long-term, sustainable success will only come as a result of building empathy, imbedding the right culture and effectively playing on the old adage that people are more productive if they are happy and engaged.

'Sounds a bit warm and fuzzy,' I hear you cry. I admit that the premise can seem idealistic and schmaltzy when put into context with experiences in business.

But Sinek doesn't dodge controversy and deals with some truly hard-hitting areas. At numerous points, he directly challenges so-called demigods of the business world, such as General Electric's Jack Welch, and drives a stake through their short-termist, often celebrity-seeking leadership styles. In the particular instance of Welch, he even dares to suggest, and show in detail, that his time at GE was not as miraculous as many suggest.

So what is the essence of the book? It lays out the basic principles of doing the right things by and for your people and reaping the benefits from both a business and personal perspective.

Sinek dips in and out of some chunky subjects to illustrate his findings, such as how working environments have an impact on depression and anxiety, all the way through to stories of Palaeolithic times and how we Homo sapiens are hard-wired to behave and co-exist, with shrewd parallels drawn with modern society.

All topics cleverly meander their way back to consistent themes, and work as a building block to the next chapter. As this happens, you find yourself increasingly gripped by the book in a way that is more common with a crime thriller than the plethora of business leadership manuals out there.

One of the most intriguing subjects is how our body's natural chemicals play an important part in setting our state of mind in the workplace.

The 'selfish chemicals', endorphins and dopamine, take on the role as the Penguin and the Joker, respectively, whereas the caped crusaders, serotonin and oxytocin, come to the rescue as the Batman and Robin of the chemical world.

Does it all sound a bit far-fetched? Well, Sinek has a canny knack of explaining exactly how endorphin rushes become addictive and keep you wanting more, and how the needy, feel-good blast of dopamine can be dangerous, encouraging the 'hit the numbers at all costs' culture that may win short-term plaudits but will leave you counting the cost in the future.

At the other end of the scale are the 'selfless chemicals'. Serotonin makes us proud, encourages self-respect and a feeling of wellness and balance, while oxytocin, the 'love chemical', increases the more we spend time with people and serves to build bonds and trust with colleagues, so that those around you feel safe and that they belong (wipes a tear from his eye).

There are many other intriguing parts of the book that create a lot of scope for discussion, such as the impact of baby boomers on society, and the future of business leaders now 'Generation Y' is at the helm.

This book is as refreshingly simple and easy to follow as it is thought-provoking, and it gets a hearty recommendation from me.

Some 'quick buck'-type leaders may well see it as all too warm and fuzzy for them, but don't bet against them reading a copy on the train - hidden inside a copy of Winning by Jack Welch to avoid embarrassment.

Stephen Vaughan is the managing director of Gloucester Rugby and was MD of London 2012 at Thomas Cook and Club 18-30.


Leaders Eat Last

Why some teams pull together and others don't

Simon Sinek

Portfolio Penguin, £14.99

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