Talk Review: Why Leaders Eat Last (Simon Sinek)

“Why Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek tied leadership qualities and our expectations of leaders to our evolutionary social systems and the release of neurotransmitters to reinforce those systems. While much of what he talks about in terms of leadership has been talked about in many different forums, I found this perspective to be helpful in better understanding why we see certain people displaying a very similar set of qualities to be good leaders.

It’s a 45 minute video embedded below that I encourage you to check out with some key takeaways and practical application thoughts below.

Key Takeaways:

  • There are four main neurotransmitters that are responsible for us feeling good: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
  • Two – endorphins and dopamine – can be individually created. Endorphins from physical activity; dopamine from accomplishing a goal or a pleasurable experience. This could range from physically crossing something off your to-do list to pursuing a goal for a cash bonus. The pursuit of dopamine release can be highly addictive.
  • The other two – serotonin and oxytocin – balance things out and are triggered primarily from your interaction with other people.
  • When we stand together as a company with high levels of trust and support, we can unite to focus on the “dangers” from outside of the company. If that trust is broken, our employees must instead focus energy on protecting themselves from the “dangers” within (a boss, politics, etc). This prevents innovation and exceptional customer service. It is a leader’s job to make sure that even the lowest level employees within the company feel safe.
  • Serotonin exists with feelings of pride and status. Recognition can trigger the release of serotonin – both in the person being recognized, and in the people who helped them get there. This is a powerful social reinforcement tool.
  • If you are not willing to put yourself at risk for others, you are not a leader. Leaders are afforded special status with many perks, but the expectation in the social contract is that you will protect your group when things get difficult.
  • Oxytocin is released when you feel you belong within a group and/or have a deeper trust level that has been earned over time. It is released when you give you time and energy without expecting anything in return.

Practical Applications:

  • You can leverage the dopamine pathway and reward system by setting very specific and visual company goals. But be cognizant that this pathway is addictive and companies only leveraging this lever of reinforcement are ripe for unintentionally encouraging people to hit goals by any means necessary.
  • Great teams want to make each other proud. Leverage recognition to tap into this. Root out people with individualistic tendencies, as they can be destructive to the team dynamic. This is even more important with people in leadership roles who can undermine your productivity as a business.
  • Politics aren’t productive for organizations and refocus employee energy into fighting the “danger” within the organization.
  • When leaders offer their time and energy, it reinforces their leadership qualities and increases trust. Most organizations have leaders still in heavy “doer” roles. There may be increased value to the company if we ensure they have sufficient time to give to others. Consider trying to clear some of their “doer” tasks to give them this time.
  • Be deliberate about the competencies you look for when putting someone into a leadership role. Focus less on broad subject-matter expertise, and more on someone who can drive the best results from their team by creating a safe, trusting, and productive work environment.



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