By Rob Cooney
Simon Sinek is a masterful storyteller whose books always leave you thinking more deeply about a particular topic. In his latest book, Leaders Eat Last, Sinek explores the science of connection and how our evolution and biology influence how we interact as a community. As with anything, the application of the science can be a force for good or disaster.
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to have all of the power while others do not? It likely stems from the fact that we evolved as a group of hierarchical animals. For this reason, the division of people into leaders and followers is simply a modern consequence of our evolution. Understanding this framework gives rise to new insights into group behavior and how to become a true leader.
In the opening chapters, Sinek delves into the biology of connection. From a neurochemical standpoint, the following chemicals moderate our behaviors and emotions:
- Endorphins: these chemicals work to disguise pain and exhaustion. From an evolutionary standpoint, they would’ve allowed hunters to complete their task and return home safely despite physical exhaustion.
- Dopamine: the reward chemical
- Serotonin and oxytocin: the connection chemicals
- Cortisol: the stress chemical
These chemicals all interact to create the feelings of connection and safety we feel as members of a group. Leaders are directly responsible for creating the circle of safety for their community. To employees, being able to work in a safe and trusting environment will create bonds within the work community. These bonds will then allow the community to pool resources and achieve meaningful forward progress. In modern workplaces, culture is a direct result of the leaders’ ability to provide a safe and trusting environment. Culture then affects how the employees approach problems, treat customers, and prioritize their values.
The middle chapters of the book take a fascinating look into the consequences (sometimes horrific) of bad leadership. Sinek covers the Milgram experiments. These experiments, designed to understand how the Holocaust could have occurred, forced participants to administer in increasing doses an electric shock to a “student.” What they found was that when empathy is removed (in the case of the experiment, by moving the student into another room so that they could not be seen) abstraction occurs, where the consequences of our actions seem less “real” than they otherwise should. Abstraction is critically important as it can explain many of the social problems that we are currently facing. For example, prioritizing profits over other metrics can lead to dehumanization. Technology also plays a significant role in abstraction. Because of the enormous scale that technology allows, it becomes much easier to think of people as data points, i.e. consumers, shareholders, or expenses. Instead of viewing them as individuals with their own wants and needs, corporations begin to see people as tools to fulfill a specific purpose. This has led to disastrous consequences from the lack of lifeboats on the Titanic to the contaminated peanut butter scandal in 2009 to the recent economic instability we have experienced since 2008.
Returning to the role of the neurohormones, Sinek goes on to explain how technology provides our brains with a rush of dopamine, quite similar to the experience of an addict. These quick rushes distract us from focusing on creating long-lasting value. He explores this in detail when looking at the use of social media to provide a substitute for doing volunteer work. As he explains, it is quite easy to “like” anything. As soon as a person clicks the “like” button, they experience a rush of dopamine that leads them to believe they’ve completed something important. Unfortunately, actually going somewhere to do the hard work or build a relationship (which would provide a burst of serotonin and oxytocin instead) is undermined when our brain focuses on the “quick fix.”
Knowing the problems that we are up against, the concluding chapters of his book focus on what leaders must do to support progress. The most important attributes? Integrity and the ability to bond. The circle of safety described earlier is created slowly and is built upon honesty and trust. As a leader, integrity will require making difficult choices in order to maintain that trust. Once trust is in place, the ability to bond will help to maintain trust. This is dependent upon mutual cooperation. Leaders must realize that they are serving their people, not the other way around. Although leaders will enjoy the privileges of rank, they must come to recognize that the privileges they enjoy carry an enormous responsibility to the people they lead. In times of crisis, leaders must dedicate personal resources to the good of the community. Pay cuts for CEO’s instead of layoffs? In the concluding chapter, Sinek shares how this principle is quite literal within the Marine Corps. When Marines gather to eat, the most senior members always receive their meal last, instead choosing to make sure that lower ranking members have their needs met first. Their unwritten agreement makes a statement that, “leaders eat last.”
Application questions for medical education:
As an educator, do you prioritize the needs of your students over your own? How?
Do you set a vision for the future or do you concentrate on short-term goals (improving specific metrics, i.e. test scores, patient satisfaction, etc.)?