Since its publication in 2014, Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek has hit the New York Times bestseller list, received 4.7/5 stars on Amazon, and 93% of Google users liked it.
The book uses basic neuroscience and expert storytelling to explain Sinek’s vision of leadership and team collaboration. Sinek pulls vivid stories from businesses, military leaders, government regulators, and elected officials to bring his ideas to life. The language is certainly conversational, while also being reasonably straightforward and clear.
This post will summarize the book’s main themes and offer tips for improving team collaboration based on the book’s recommendations.
Main themes of Leaders Eat Last
One of the main themes of Leaders Eat Last is that humans are evolved to cooperate for survival. Specifically, we’re evolved to live, work, and socialize very closely together in hierarchical groups of about 150. To help motivate us to do the things we need to do to survive and reproduce, our brains evolved to release pleasurable chemicals to reward us for certain behaviors.
Functional organizations and leaders do the things that release the right chemicals at the right time. When you get that right, you get maximum trust, cooperation, and safety. And that, in turn, leads to long-term profit and growth for organizations.
The four main chemicals
The four main chemicals Sinek discusses are: Cortisol, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine.
Cortisol relates to cooperation
Cortisol is the stress hormone. It prepares the body for fight, flight, fawn, or freeze responses to potentially life-threatening circumstances. Experiencing cortisol spikes infrequently, for short periods, is fine for your health. But frequent, long-lasting cortisol spikes wreak havoc on our minds and bodies.
Unfortunately, we’re not evolved for the kinds of chronic stressors endemic to modern life. So many of us experience frequent, long releases of cortisol. One thing that releases a lot of cortisol for many people is feeling unsupported, uncared about, intimidated, humiliated, isolated, dumb, useless, and rejected. And many people feel that way often at work.
Basically, humans are evolved to trust each other and work closely together. When we feel excluded in any way, our brains release cortisol because we evolved in a situation in which social exclusion was often a matter of life-or-death. Because long-term, chronic exposure to cortisol makes us ill, constantly feeling socially excluded at work actually makes us physically sick. Cortisol also inhibits oxytocin, which decreases feelings of empathy.
It’s up to leaders and individuals in organizations to make sure everyone feels safe and included in order to get and keep everyone’s cortisol at healthy levels.
Dopamine/endorphins incentivize effort
Our brains release dopamine and endorphins when we do things that keep us alive. Basically every time you do anything at all, your brain rewards you with a release of dopamine. This includes, of course, accomplishing goals. But it also includes getting closer to accomplishing goals, large and small. Dopamine is a “selfish” chemical, in that it doesn’t differentiate between things you do just for yourself and things you do for or with other people. Dopamine is why we feel good when we accomplish a goal. It’s also why we get addicted to things like cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, etc. Endorphins enable us to persevere through hardships to achieve a desired end. They’re responsible for the “runner’s high.”
Organizations with poor trust and cooperation are full of people who are running on dopamine and endorphins rather than oxytocin and serotonin.
Oxytocin bonds us to each other
Our brains release oxytocin when we do nice things for other people or other people do nice things for us. It’s how our brains reward us for cooperating and looking out for others and doing things that engender trust, love, loyalty, and engagement. When we hug, do each other favors, smile, etc. we get rewarded with a hit of oxytocin. Leaders and organizations that foster trust and cooperation create a culture where people are motivated by oxytocin and the other chemicals. Unhealthy cultures run only on the “selfish” chemicals.
Serotonin rewards leadership
Serotonin rewards us for being a valuable member of a group. When you feel your status rise in a group, your brain releases serotonin. It’s why we have public awards ceremonies and why we invite our friends to watch us finish marathons. Oxytocin rewards us for being social, being generous, and making interpersonal connections. Holding hands, giving and receiving hugs, being generous, etc.
According to Sinek, hierarchy is natural and fundamental to human evolution. Our brains reward us with serotonin when we feel bonded to our group and/or our status is a group rise. Leaders and organizations should seek to reward good leaders with serotonin.
How to harness those chemicals
Every organization has internal and external threats. Internal threats include feeling competitive, untrusted, excluded, talked down to, etc. External threats include allowing the competition to win. A healthy organization reduces or eliminates internal threats so that everyone is able to work together to handle external threats.
The way to reduce or eliminate internal threats is to encircle everyone in their organization in their Circle of Safety. It starts with trust. For leaders to win their people’s trust, they must first extend trust to their people. Leaders need to believe that people are fundamentally good and don’t need strict rules or micromanagement to do the right thing most of the time. When it comes to a thriving organization, mutual trust is more important than rules. A healthy organization is full of people who know when to, and feel authorized to, do what they know is right even if it’s goes against the rules.
Leaders also need to earn their people’s trust by treating their reports like family. Leaders, in Sinek’s view, are like the heads of a household. And their workers are like their children. You care for your kids in sickness and in health. You don’t fire your children when they aren’t contributing to the bottom line. A mother and father see their children as more important than money. And so should a leader. The primary role of a leader is to look out for those in their care.
A good leader eats last. They’re more than willing to sacrifice their own resources and well-being when necessary to promote the good of the group in their charge. In exchange, we reward leaders with perks because we recognize as a species how valuable good leaders are.
When everyone feels safe, information flows freely and people deal with mistakes quickly. There’s widespread trust, cooperation, and innovation when people feel a strong sense of belonging, safety, and security.
Leaders fail by being motivated by the wrong things. Instead of harnessing oxytocin and serotonin from looking out for the well-being of their charges, bad leaders look out for their own self-interest. They put money and power over people. When people don’t feel cared for by their leaders, they create their own, small Circles of Safety. Silos form, mistakes get covered up, and information doesn’t move through the organization. In these organizations, people feel stressed, unsupported, and uncared about. This is bad for everyone’s health and performance.
Another point Sinek makes is that multitasking is a myth. Task switching can cost up to 40% of your productive time. Studies show multitaskers made more mistakes and remembered less. It takes 25 minutes, on average, to get back to your previous level of productivity after an interruption. This is especially bad because we’re interrupted every three minutes, on average. Luckily, Clockwise can help you avoid interruptions and stay in the zone.
To improve team collaboration, it’s important to create a culture that fosters the healthy release of all four brain chemicals. That means leaders need to ensure everyone in their organization feels they’re within the Circle of Safety. It means leaders should eat last, and be willing to sacrifice for the good of the people in their care. Leaders should treat their employees like a parents treats their child. Layoffs should be infrequent. Trust should be a two-way street. Workers should feel empowered to make decisions and break the rules when necessary. And workers should feel safe working together against external threats.