Simon Sinek (2014)

Leaders Eat Last

It’s a common conception that leadership equates to power and privilege: Those at the top rake in all the perks while the ground troops rarely receive the appreciation their hard work deserves. Good leadership though, Simon Sinek suggests, should be the exact opposite. As leaders, it’s our foremost duty to support those under our command and not the other way round. The title of Sinek’s book thus refers to a common practice observed in the US Marine Corps: The higher up one ranks in the food chain, the later they get served in the mess hall.

As this anecdote suggests, Sinek often draws on examples from the armed forces: Fighter pilots in Afghanistan and commanders of huge Navy ships help to illustrate what would otherwise make a quite mundane point: Organizations in which people trust each other, and where leaders tend to serve, rather than dictate, consistently outperform others. They achieve better results at lower costs. Their employees are happier, healthier, and less likely to make bad decisions.

The author furthermore underpins his argument with two intertwined strains of reasoning: How brain chemicals, particularly endorphin, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, largely drive individual behavior on the one side. And how, on the other, macroeconomic developments, including the rise of neoliberalism, the coming-of-age of the Baby Boomer generation in managerial positions, and the breathless pursuit of empty “shareholder value” in recent decades, have cultivated a toxic environment which rewards selfish actions more than altruistic ones.

This might sound a bit gloomy and pessimistic, but Sinek does not leave the reader entirely without hope. He brings many examples, also non-militaristic ones, to the table that show that as individual leaders, we have the choice to change things for the better within our own spheres of influence. Even if we can’t swap out the operating system of our economy—or that of our brains for that matter.

Despite my wholehearted support for Sinek’s argument and my general admiration for his writing and his talks, I’m not completely enthusiastic about “Leaders Eat Last”. For example, some of his anecdotes (such as the one that lent the book its title) somehow seem like they’re lacking a punch line: Yes, we now understand that leaders in the Marines do eat last. And that’s pretty much all we learn about that. But it feels like there should be a lot more to say about the practice, shouldn’t there? At other times, particularly when he embarks on his crusade against corporate layoffs, Sinek unfortunately tends towards oversimplifications: Neither are all companies which at some point lay off a fraction of their employees driven solely by short-sighted profit goals nowadays. Nor was such a behavior never the case before the reign of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. And equating those who have to make such tough decisions with parents who “put the car before the kids” does, in my view, not help to foster a healthy debate. Instead, the book would have benefitted from a more nuanced discussion of workforce reductions that serve the greater goal of keeping an organization afloat, as well as how to manage their inevitable consequences in a humane way.

All in all though, I do recommend “Leaders Eat Last” for anyone who has the honor of formally or informally leading others. I would, however, caution against taking all of Sinek’s points at face value. And I would ask you to turn a blind eye at some of his more awkward metaphors—human beings, for instance, hardly ever equate to “a snowmobile in the desert.”