Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t by Simon Sinek

read_newI’m a big fan of Simon Sinek’s TED talks. (In fact, I watched the rehearsal for his latest one live on stage in Vancouver in March of this year).

I was surprised to find that this book was about drugs.

Not the ones that might come to mind when I use that word, but the kind of drugs that our own brains secrete into our nervous system.

One of the big lessons for me was about how large corporations think that internal competition is healthy and necessary for innovation. They are wrong. That kind of competition is damaging and disrupts the “Circle of Safety” that Simon talks about in this book.

Another one nicely reinforced the direction my life is going in at the moment – that is, my mission is to bring people together at inspiring events.

His thoughts on how video conferencing can never replace a business trip was very interesting.

Let’s take a look.

Here are my notes on “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t” by Simon Sinek.

When the people have to manage dangers from inside the organization, the organization itself becomes less able to face the dangers from outside.

By creating a Circle of Safety around the people in the organization, leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organization from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities.

Without a Circle of Safety, people are forced to spend too much time and energy protecting themselves from each other.

It is easy to know when we are in the Circle of Safety because we can feel it.

We feel valued by our colleagues and we feel cared for by our superiors.

We become absolutely confident that the leaders of the organization and all those with whom we work are there for us and will do what they can to help us succeed.

We become members of the group.

We feel like we belong.

When we believe that those inside our group, those inside the Circle, will look out for us, it creates an environment for the free exchange of information and effective communication.

This is fundamental to driving innovation, preventing problems from escalating and making organizations better equipped to defend themselves from the outside dangers and to seize the opportunities.

Absent a Circle of Safety, paranoia, cynicism and self-interest prevail.

The whole purpose of maintaining the Circle of Safety is so that we can invest all our time and energy to guard against the dangers outside.

A study by two researchers at the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College found that a child’s sense of well-being is affected less by the long hours their parents put in at work and more by the mood their parents are in when they come home.

Children are better off having a parent who works into the night in a job they love than a parent who works shorter hours but comes home unhappy.

There are four primary chemicals in our body that contribute to all our positive feelings that I will generically call “happy”:

  1. endorphins
  2. dopamine
  3. serotonin
  4. oxytocin

Whether acting alone or in concert, in small doses or large, anytime we feel any sense of happiness or joy, odds are it is because one or more of these chemicals is coursing through our veins.

They do not exist simply to make us feel good. They each serve a very real and practical purpose: our survival.

The first two chemicals, endorphins and dopamine, work to get us where we need to go as individuals—to persevere, find food, build shelters, invent tools, drive forward and get things done.

I like to call these the “selfish” chemicals.

The other two, serotonin and oxytocin, are there to incentivize us to work together and develop feelings of trust and loyalty.

I like to call these the “selfless” chemicals.

They work to help strengthen our social bonds so that we are more likely to work together and to cooperate, so that we can ultimately survive and ensure our progeny will live on beyond us.

The Selfish Chemicals

Imagine if every time we felt hungry, we had to go hunting for a few hours … with no guarantee that we’d catch anything.

Our bodies, in an effort to get us to repeat behaviors that are in our best interest, came up with a way to encourage us to go hunting and gathering on a regular basis instead of waiting until we were starving.

Two chemicals—endorphins and dopamine—are the reason that we are driven to hunt, gather and achieve.

They make us feel good when we find something we’re looking for, build something we need or accomplish our goals.

These are the chemicals of progress.

E Is for Endorphins: The Runner’s High

Endorphins serve one purpose and one purpose only: to mask physical pain. That’s it.

“You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time,” he said. And he’d be right. Laughing actually releases endorphins.

During tense times, a little lightheartedness may go a long way to help relax those around us and reduce tensions so that we can focus on getting our jobs done.

D Is for Dopamine: An Incentive for Progress

Dopamine is the reason for the good feeling we get when we find something we’re looking for or do something that needs to get done.

It is responsible for the feeling of satisfaction after we’ve finished an important task, completed a project, reached a goal or even reached one of the markers on our way to a bigger goal.

We all know how good it feels to cross something off our to-do list.

That feeling of progress or accomplishment is primarily because of dopamine.

Dopamine can help us get through college, become a doctor or work tirelessly to realize an imagined vision of the future.

Dopamine is also highly, highly addictive.

Cocaine, nicotine, alcohol and gambling all release dopamine.

There is another thing to add to that list of things that can hijack our dopamine reward system: social media. Texting, e-mail, the number of likes we collect, the ding, the buzz or the flash of our phones that tell us “You’ve got mail,” feels amazing.

Without endorphins to give us the edge we need to keep going, we would not keep striving even when we were tired and exhausted.

Dopamine rewards us with a chemical rush when we’ve accomplished something, making us want to do it again and again, which is exactly what it takes to find things, build things and get things done.

But it’s harder to do all things alone, especially the big things.

Together is better.

The Selfless Chemicals

It is the selfless chemicals that make us feel valued when we are in the company of those we trust, give us the feeling of belonging and inspire us to want to work for the good of the group.

There is no part of the crocodile’s reptilian brain that rewards any cooperative behavior.

We’re just not strong enough to survive alone, let alone thrive. Whether we like to admit it or not, we need each other. That’s where serotonin and oxytocin come in. They are the backbone of the Circle of Safety.

S Is for Serotonin: The Leadership Chemical

Serotonin is the feeling of pride. It is the feeling we get when we perceive that others like or respect us. It makes us feel strong and confident, like we can take on anything. And more than confidence boosting, it raises our status.

At the moment that college graduate feels the serotonin course through their veins as they receive their diploma, their parents, sitting in the audience, also get bursts of serotonin and feel equally as proud.

And that’s the point.

Serotonin is attempting to reinforce the bond between parent and child, teacher and student, coach and player, boss and employee, leader and follower.

O Is for Oxytocin: Chemical Love

Oxytocin is most people’s favorite chemical.

It’s the feeling of friendship, love or deep trust. It is the feeling we get when we’re in the company of our closest friends or trusted colleagues. It is the feeling we get when we do something nice for someone or someone does something nice for us. It is responsible for all the warm and fuzzies.

Without oxytocin there would be no empathy. Without oxytocin, we wouldn’t be able to develop strong bonds of trust and friendship.

Oxytocin makes us social.

Unlike dopamine, which is about instant gratification, oxytocin is long-lasting.

My favorite definition of love is giving someone the power to destroy us and trusting they won’t use it.

Simply seeing or hearing about acts of human generosity actually inspires us to want to do the same.

This is the science behind “paying it forward.”

That’s the reason it is a big deal when world leaders shake hands—it is a sign to each other and all who witness that they can do business together.

The Big C

Cortisol is responsible for the stress and anxiety we experience when something goes bump in the night.

It is the first level of our fight or flight response.

Cortisol actually inhibits the release of oxytocin, the chemical responsible for empathy.

This means that when there is only a weak Circle of Safety and people must invest time and energy to guard against politics and other dangers inside the company, it actually makes us even more selfish and less concerned about one another or the organization.

It’s not the nature of the work we do or the number of hours we work that will help us reduce stress and achieve work-life balance; it’s increased amounts of oxytocin and serotonin.

Serotonin boosts our self-confidence and inspires us to help those who work for us and make proud those for whom we work.

Oxytocin relieves stress, increases our interest in our work and improves our cognitive abilities, making us better able to solve complex problems.

It boosts our immune systems, lowers blood pressure, increases our libido and actually lessens our cravings and addictions.

And best of all, it inspires us to work together.

“Trust is not formed through a screen, it is formed across a table”

It seems to stir controversy when I talk about the fact that no matter how great social media is, it is not as effective for building strong bonds of trust as real human contact is.

Social media fans will tell me about all the close friends they’ve made online.

But if social media is the end-all-be-all, then why do over thirty thousand bloggers and podcasters descend on Las Vegas every year for a huge conference called BlogWorld?

Why don’t they meet online?

Because nothing can replace face-to-face meetings for social animals like us.

A live concert is better than the DVD and going to a ball game feels different from watching on TV, even though the view is better on television.

We like to actually be around people who are like us. It makes us feel like we belong.

It is also the reason a video conference can never replace a business trip.

Trust is not formed through a screen, it is formed across a table. It takes a handshake to bind humans … and no technology yet can replace that. There is no such thing as virtual trust.

It is why telecommuters never really feel like they are a part of the team as strongly as the ones who go to work every day.

No matter how many e-mails they send or receive, no matter how kept in the loop they are, they are missing all the social time, the gaps, the nuance … the humanity of being around other humans.

“Numbers don’t save companies in hard times, people do”

The most common display of a lack of integrity in the business world is when a leader of an organization says what others want to hear and not the truth.

This is the reason we don’t trust politicians.

Though we may sit down with a list of statements a politician has made and agree with every single one of them, the reason we tend not to trust them is because we suspect they do not believe all the things they are saying.

We don’t even agree with everything our close friends and family say or believe, so it stands to reason that if a politician is in perfect alignment with us they are not being completely honest.

Politicians spend time on the road shaking hands and learning about us when they are campaigning.

But if they really cared about us, then they would spend time shaking hands and meeting us all year-round and not just when it suited their agenda.

Consider GE: like many of the powerful financial companies of the 1980s and 1990s, it was not built for hard times. Nor was Enron. Or Worldcom. Or Tyco.

These companies had something else in common as well: they all had hero CEOs who maximized shareholder value for the short term and managed the lives of human beings like they were numbers on a spreadsheet.

But numbers never save anyone in hard times. People do.

Every CEO of Southwest Airlines has known that their first responsibility is to their people. Serve them and they will serve the customer, who will ultimately drive the business and benefit the stakeholders. In that order.

Human beings have thrived for fifty thousand years not because we are driven to serve ourselves, but because we are inspired to serve others.

Leadership is not a license to do less; it is a responsibility to do more. And that’s the trouble. Leadership takes work.

What Do You Think?

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