Insights on Leadership: “Why Leaders Eat Last”

‘Why leaders eat last ….’  was the intriguing theme of a presentation given by ethnographer and leadership expert Simon Sinek at the Vistage 25th anniversary conference.  The event, sponsored by Cezanne HR, brought MDs and senior managers together to challenge their thinking about leadership and in particular why some teams pull together and others don’t.

leadership-bigIn a fascinating talk, Sinek revealed the hidden dynamics that inspire leadership and trust.  He explained that in biological terms, and since time began, ‘leaders’ have always had the first pick of food and other spoils, but at a cost. When danger is present, the group expects the leader to mitigate all threats even at the expense of their personal well being.

This principle still holds true in business today – and understanding this deep-seated expectation that employees have is the key difference between someone who is just an authority figure rather than a true leader.

So as a leader or manager, how can you create the trust that underpins great performance and ensure that you take people with you in pursuit of your business goals?  These are some of the insights that Sinek shared:

Make it personal

Technology has revolutionized the way we work – but not always in a good way.  Too often we default to email for conversations that really ought to happen face-to-face.  “Email is a rational tool, don’t use it for emotional questions,” says Sinek.  In other words, get out from behind your desk and establish connections with people on a personal level.  Email is great for sharing information (here’s the latest document, this is when the meeting will take place) – but not for conversations where people have a personal and vested interest (what do you think of my ideas? How can we collaborate on this project?). Colleagues may initially be surprised when you drop by their desk or pick up the phone in response to an email, but the results will be worth the effort.  If people feel you have a genuine interest in getting to know them and hearing their views, they are much more likely to trust your advice, buy into your ideas or engage enthusiastically in whatever change you may be proposing.

Don’t just talk, listen

Leaders often feel they are expected to know all the answers – and in many cases you may feel that you do!  It’s vital, however, to listen to other people’s viewpoint and not just push forward your own. Hear people out, consider their ideas and resist the temptation to turn their ‘stories’ into your stories.  Think about it.  How often has someone started to tell you  about an initiative that’s worked well – but before they’ve got to the end you’ve jumped in and started to share an experience of your own?  Let people talk and listen for what is not being said as well as for what is being said.  You will almost certainly acquire new insights and are also more likely to get to the root of problems and understand why people are acting and behaving in the way that they do. And of course if people feel listened to, it will help you win their trust and make them feel part of the final decision or the actions that you take.

Share the credit

People need recognition for their achievements.  It’s all part of a primitive urge to raise our status and to feel that we’ve accomplished something or achieved our goals.  It’s about pride, where we are in the pecking order and how we want to be perceived by our colleagues.  In today’s highly competitive workforce, however, it’s common for people to beaver away behind the scenes, only to find that someone else steps up to take the credit for their ideas and their efforts.  Make sure this ‘dog eat dog’ environment doesn’t prevail in your business.   Acknowledge the contribution of the people you’ve been working with and thank them publicly for their efforts.  It’s not necessarily about big awards ceremonies or employee of the month schemes (although these are good ) – but about thanking people on a regular basis for what they’ve done and recognizing the contribution they have made to the job in hand.

Show willingness to help others

In life, we put a premium on people who are prepared to give us their time and energy.  In a busy, pressurized world, we have a tendency to focus on words rather than actions.  But time spent helping someone tackle a difficult project, learn a new skill or deal with a problem will be valued much more than supportive (but basically empty) statements.  Sinek uses  the analogy of the 12-step plan advocated by Alcoholics Anonymous.  The  first step is to admit you have a problem.  The 12th and final step (and the key to successful recovery) is the commitment to help another alcoholic. He asked the audience to think about how they would feel about him if he said last week he had donated thousands to a particular charity (good chap, well done) – as opposed to how they would feel if he told them he had given up his weekend to help paint and decorate a local school or community facility (that’s great, well done, maybe I should do that too).  Willingness to help others is catching – if you do it, it will spread throughout the organisation to everyone’s benefit.

Make people feel safe

How safe do you make your people feel when they come to work?  Are they constantly worrying about what will happen if they don’t meet their targets or whether their boss will have their back if things go wrong?  Leaders need to pay attention to the culture they are creating.  If people are constantly looking over their shoulder, uncertain about what they need to do and worried about what tomorrow will bring, they will be wasting valuable time and energy they could be putting into their work.  They will become paranoid and self-interested instead of working together effectively as a team. “The more we look after each other the safer we feel. The more we feel like we belong, the more we will work together to defeat the dangers outside,” says Sinek.   Of course as a leader you won’t necessarily have time to make sure personally that every single employee feels secure – but if you make those immediately around you feel safe, they will replicate that with their teams and the ‘circle of safety’ will widen throughout the business.

You can read about Sinek’s take on leadership in his new book ‘Leaders Eat Last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t’ pub Jan 2014.

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