I remember first learning the principle that leaders eat last from John K. Russell, an advisor on a summer Presbyterian workcamp in Westpoint Mississippi. He had been an officer in the Army and talked about how the officers had nicer silverware and napkins but it was the same food and they ate after the enlisted men. Simon Sinek uses that principle as a point of departure–leadership as a combination of higher status and service. His description of leadership reminded of Goethe’s maxim “A man is really alive only when he delights in the good-will of others.”
Leaders Eat Last
Here are some of my key take-aways from this talk:
- Who would risk their life so that others would survive: they do it because the others would do the same. Who wouldn’t want to work in an organization like that.
- In the military they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain. We have it backwards.
- Leadership comes at a cost. We expect leadership to run toward danger when it comes. Leaders put themselves at risk to look after others.
- Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank. Many people at the upper levels of organizations are absolutely not leaders. They are authorities: we do what they say because they have authority over us, but we would not follow them. Many people at the bottom of organizations have no authority but are absolutely leaders, and this is because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them, and they have chosen to look after the person to the right of them. This is what a leader is.
- If you are meeting someone and you are nervous when you are meeting them, they are the alpha. If they are nervous meeting you, then you are the alpha.
- Great leaders extend the circle of safety to the outermost circle, so that the most junior members of the organization feel that they belong. When that happens they treat customers better.
Leaders are the ones willing to look out for those to the left of them and those to the right of them. They are often willing to sacrifice their own comfort for ours, even when they disagree with us. Trust is not simply a matter of shared opinions. Trust is a biological reaction to the belief that someone has our well-being at heart. Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last.