Leading with empathy

What does it mean to be a leader? What responsibilities does leadership entail? And what are the risks? In Leaders Eat Last, speaker and author Simon Sinek thoughtfully considers all these questions and more, combining moral intuition with scientific research to paint a compelling picture of good leadership.

Sinek has a unique voice among writers on business leadership. He is unafraid to make strong claims on ethics and moral responsibility and does not limit himself to the field of “actionable advice.” Not that his work does not contain solid, practical insight. But he tends to be more aspirational and inspirational.

Another thing that makes Sinek stand out from most authors in his field is that he grounds his claims solidly in scientific research. The book begins with examples of fearless leadership, self-sacrifice, and empathy. So naturally, Sinek then turns to a discussion of hormones.

More specifically, the book analyzes the role played by dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins—how they regulate behavior and inform the structure and hierarchies inherent in human society. To give just one example, endorphins are connected with physical exertion and drive. They are what give people a glow or rush after an intense workout. Endorphins help top performers push themselves even further.

In primitive hunter-gatherer societies, this meant that people on the hunter side of the equation were high on endorphins and able to rise to the top. The gatherers, on the other hand, may have been deficient in the hormones associated with peak performance, but the successful completion of simple, routine tasks would produce other hormones like serotonin. These helped form a sense of social cohesion and security at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Sinek argues that these hormonal mechanisms play the same role today, mutatis mutandis, as they did in the earliest human societies. Social hierarchies, leaders and followers, these are built into our very biology and brain chemistry. So what does that mean for a leader in the modern workplace?

There are a lot of connections that the book draws on this, but here are some highlights. First of all, people want to feel secure. A major part of leadership, then, is being empathetic to your employees needs and concerns. Even if your goal as a CEO is to generate maximum efficiency, you are not going to achieve this by treating those under you like cogs in a machine. People’s most basic urge is the need for survival. If they feel like that is at risk, they will be less bold, less creative, and less collaborative.

You need to build trust and foster a sense of community, even family, among your employees. Leadership is as much about the creation of culture as it is about reporting record growth and impressing your shareholders. To an extent, this idea is cliche. But Sinek bolsters it by tying in the idea of moral responsibility. He lists numerous examples of irresponsible and arrogant leaders, whose myopic devil-may-care attitude inflicted massive damage on society at large. The most infamous example of this being, of course, the financial crisis of 2008.

This is where the title of the book comes in. Good leaders eat last because they are attentive to the needs of their subordinates. Good leaders take responsibility for their actions and don’t indulge their every whim and impulse. Good leaders make sure everyone else is safe before taking time for themselves.

What makes this book, and Simon Sinek’s work more broadly, so effective is how grounded it is in psychology and human behavior. Sinek has a moral point of view, and a very strongly held one at that. But the book is rarely preachy because the abstract moral principles are tied to concrete facts.

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek is available for purchase here.

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