Simon Sinek: Leaders Eat Last

Sinek awed the crowd with his humanistic approach to leadership based on evolutionary biology.


One of the most eagerly anticipated speakers of the Nordic Business Forum 2015, Simon Sinek arrived on stage to energetic music and a rapturous reception. However, when the music subsided and the audience sat back in their seats, the casually dressed and mild-mannered speaker wasted little time engaging our humanity within.

Finding Captain Swenson

Sinek’s opening was a heart-rending true story that literally had grown men shedding tears. The account was of the heroism of Captain Swenson, a US marine in Afghanistan, who whilst under heavy fire from the enemy, put himself in danger to save the lives of his fellow marines. However, it was the instinctive and, as Sinek describes it, loving kiss laid on the forehead of a wounded soldier that was so poignant.

For our speaker the incident is profound. He asks himself the question: “Where do people like that come from because I would like to work with people like that? I would like to be surrounded by people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for me.” He wonders if these amazing characters are born this way, and contrasts this level of sacrifice with the competitive world of business. However, when he began to investigate more deeply, he started to “realize it’s not the people, it’s the environment!”

The human organization

It is no accident that Sinek’s story comes from the military realm. He has been drawn to the US Marine Corps because of the fascinating team dynamic it embodies. It represents the extreme theater in which he could examine two important elements – trust and cooperation. “As it turns out the human body functions exactly the same way as an organization.” Using his ethnography training to good effect, Sinek draws parallels between basic human behavior and its centrality to modern business culture. He states that nothing much has changed in 60,000 years of Homo sapient existence, we need to feel safe and secure for trust and cooperation to occur. “When we feel safe amongst our own we will naturally combine our efforts, naturally combine our talents to face the dangers and seize the opportunities. If we do not feel safe amongst our own, the natural human reaction is to protect ourselves from each other.”

To illustrate his point Sinek uses the example of an airline gate-agent who aggressively instructs a passenger away from boarding the plane too early. When asked why she needed to speak to the person in such a demanding manner, her reply was, “Sir. If I don’t follow the rules, I could get in trouble or lose my job!” Sinek points out the cause and effect of such a culture of fear, saying that, “when you give people a circle of safety, they will naturally take care of each other, the customer and the company. When you force them to fear, they will naturally take care of themselves.”

The addictive flipside of chemically defined behavior

Elements of behavioral neuroscience are used to support Sinek’s analysis. “Inside our body is a system of chemicals, a system of rewards and incentives designed to get us to repeat behavior that is in our best interest.” He attests to the strong correlation in how organizations use the same chemicals responsible for successful survival of the human species, to motivate employee activity. The chemical release of the four hormones of Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin and Oxytocin, commonly referred to as the ‘happy chemicals’, are the mechanisms driving our behavior. Endorphins and dopamine are regarded as the “selfish chemicals” because of the isolated satisfaction they provide to the individual. Endorphins exist in order to mask pain and increase our stamina that we might be able to gather food or track animals over large distances in order to survive. In modern society, its use is largely redundant.

The other is dopamine and has a much more prevalent role in modern life, as well as in organizational culture. “Dopamine is responsible for the feeling we get when we find something we’re looking for or we [achieve] something we set out to accomplish.” Sinek illustrates the necessity of dopamine for our survival by describing how it is released every time we get a little closer to our goal.

As he describes a hunter-gatherer scenario, he clicks his fingers to represent a dopamine hit. The sound echoes around the auditorium. It is particularly haunting as he then uses the same sound to illustrate the addictive qualities possessed by the chemical. You see dopamine is also released for things such as nicotine, gambling, alcohol or the use of a mobile phone. As Sinek points out, “it’s literally tricking our internal biological systems to get us to repeat a behavior that’s not in our best interests.” The concern he highlights in a business sense is that an organizational culture that incentivizes using “a dopamine-based reward system… [can create] an entire organization of addicts.” He warns that if employees are addicted to the dopamine from rewards, they will sacrifice cooperation in order to satisfy these chemical desires!

The leadership chemical

So how is it that our species has learned to cooperate in order to survive? The answer lies in the other two chemicals, Serotonin and Oxytocin. Sinek refers to the first, serotonin, as the ‘leadership’ chemical. “There are many health ways to get serotonin. One of them is this – public recognition. When you hear your name called out in a public environment it feels incredible.” Serotonin also affects the bond between individuals. Sinek describes a graduation scene where, at the moment the person accepts their diploma, not only does the individual feel proud, but the members of their family and friends there to witness it also feel proud. “What serotonin is attempting to do is reinforce the relationship between parent and child, between coach and player, leader and follower.” There is a purpose to this process, as Sinek explains. This ‘reinforcing’ effect is designed so the sacrifices a leader makes seem worthwhile and help us to continue taking care of one another!

Who’d be a leader?

Wanting to become a leader is natural. The desire to move up the hierarchy and become an alpha is why we are “constantly assessing and judging each other.” It is also natural to defer to our alphas and allow them the perks that come with being more superior to us. As Sinek asserts, “there’s not a single person in this room…who has a problem with somebody more senior…making a higher salary. We may think they are completely ineffective, but the fact they make a higher salary than us, bothers no one!” However, being an alpha, being a leader and getting all the perks, comes at a cost: “As a marine corps general explained to me, the cost of leadership is self-interest. You see the group is not stupid. We don’t give you all of those perks and all of those advantages for nothing.”

Often in business this fundamental principle of sacrifice has been lost, and “is why so many people have visceral contempt for… the banking CEO’s and there disproportionate salaries and bonus structures.” We care not how much money they make, but if they allow, or worse they choose, “to sacrifice their people in order to keep their salaries and bonuses,” we find it “morally reprehensible.” As Sinek so perfectly summarizes: “There are no great leaders in this world that would ever sacrifice their people to save the numbers. Great leaders sacrifice the numbers to save the people.”

A touch of friendship

Sinek moves on to address the final chemical affecting our behavior, that of oxytocin. It is the chemical responsible for the feeling of love, friendship and loyalty. Sinek explains that our quest for friendship and loyalty is driven by our need for security, and when we achieve this security oxytocin is released. Another way to get oxytocin is through human touch. “That’s why our children are always touching us and why it’s very important to hug our children, because it makes them feel safe.” In the business world touch is just as vital. The thought of someone being very polite but refusing to shake our hand after signing a contract is extremely disconcerting. We immediately begin to mistrust them because “almost all [human] behavior is governed by our desire to feel safe.”

Spend time not money

Sinek is at great pains to emphasize the abstract and redundant nature of money in building trust and relationships. Money is “a redeemable commodity,” and as such pales into insignificance when compared to the sacrifice of one’s time and energy. “When someone is willing to give us their time and energy we reward them with our love and loyalty.” In a business context Sinek explains that email is one of the worst forms of communication for this purpose. It is great for the exchange of information but “terrible for compliments, criticisms or anything to do with ideas, because ideas are always emotional.” Sinek goes on to say how important the little things are for being a good leader, such as spending more time to speak directly to people even when you are busy. “Trust is formed in these little moments, not the big moments. Remember leadership is a choice and it is a daily practice.”

Leadership can be learnt but not measured

Our speaker doesn’t sugar coat the difficulties of being a good leader. It takes time, effort and perseverance because the effects of good leadership can’t be measured on a daily basis. He likens the practice of good leadership to exercise. You won’t notice the effects in the early days, weeks and months. “Like parenting, like exercise, leadership is an act of faith, it requires that this is the right thing to do and I’m going to keep on doing it.” He also points out that you might not be the first person to notice the results. Much like exercise, you won’t see the small changes, but others will. We are amazed at the sacrifices great leaders make, but as Sinek explains, it is the small sacrifices that these leaders make every day that make big leadership decisions easy.

Choose to be a leader

Not for the first time in the forum, the reference to our smartphones is used to illustrate the crux of a speaker’s presentation. Sinek cannot express more deeply how important it is to keep our smart phones out of sight when directly communicate with others. “What that does is send a subconscious message that says to the people – I care about you more than anything else!” Sinek reminds us that anybody can be a leader. Position gives you authority but that doesn’t make you a leader, your actions do. Leadership is about small sacrifices and choosing to care. It’s about the little human elements that we too easily forget. As Sinek concludes, “leadership is a choice and every single one of us can make the choice to be the leader we wish we had.”

Simon Sinek is a trained ethnographer and he’s the author of global bestseller “Start With Why”. He is best known for popularizing the concept of Why and for the talk he gave on the subject that became the second most watched talk of all time on TED.


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