Simon Sinek made this quote popular with his book "Leaders eat last". The British-American author is a much wanted inspirational speaker and author of several bestsellers including Start with Why. His TED talk on this subject is, with 40 million views, the third most-viewed TED talk ever. He writes: "Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food of their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last."
Sinek has taken his cue from Robert K. Greenleaf who introduced the concept of Servant Leadership in his essay ‘The Servant as Leader’. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by someone at the ‘top of the pyramid’, servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform to the best of their ability.
Simon Sinek’s ‘leaders eat last’ statement is an allusion to the commonly known ‘Officers eat last’ rule in the United States Marine Corps. During field training and in certain combat environments, the officers of these forces eat last. It’s also customary for them to serve the food to the soldiers underlining the fact that those on the frontline are of crucial importance. Officers often must skip a meal – and while this is unfortunate and uncomfortable, you don’t win a war with hungry soldiers at the front.
March 2021 in the Belgian rural municipality of Sint-Truiden. As in the rest of Western Europe, the Sint-Truiden people are caught between hope and despair. Despair because the third wave of COVID-19 infections is sweeping the country resulting in increasing numbers of sick people, hospitalisations and deaths. Because the municipality had also been affected by a COVID outbreak at the local hospital, Sint-Trudo, a few weeks earlier. Because the corona measures are indefinite tightened, such as social distancing, disinfecting hands, the wearing of face masks, as well as restrictions on shopping and closures of cafés and restaurants.
On the other hand, there is also hope. Very soon after COVID-19 emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and spread at break-neck speed, scientists were deciphering the genetic code of the virus. With this knowledge, they could design testing and develop effective vaccines in record time. Several European governments defined their vaccination strategy and decided to prioritise vaccinations for the most vulnerable citizens (older people or people with underlying conditions) for two reasons – first, because these groups had higher mortality rates and, secondly, to quickly reduce pressure on healthcare systems.
Back to Sint-Truiden. But in addition to hope and despair, anger rages in the streets. The citizens are furious with their mayor, 56-year-old Veerle Heeren. Rumour has it that while the vaccines were reserved for people over 85, the mayor – also a member of parliament and ex-minister – had herself prematurely and unlawful vaccinated, along with 13 acquaintances including her sister and son, her hairdresser and some neighbours… simply because there were still some vaccines available. The mayor evades all questions and shrouds herself in silence, until a few weeks later when a whistleblower exposes the fact. The mayor’s first reaction is to claim she did ‘nothing illegal’ and simply made an ‘error of judgement’ and sees no reason why she cannot continue to function as mayor. A few weeks later, she steps aside under pressure.
When reading this, you can only think of Simon Sinek’s ‘leaders eat last’ statement, an allusion to the commonly known ‘Officers eat last’ rule in the United States Marine Corps. During field training and in certain combat environments, the officers of these forces eat last. It’s also customary for them to serve the food to the soldiers underlining the fact that those on the frontline are of crucial importance. Officers often must skip a meal – and while this is unfortunate and uncomfortable, you don’t win a war with hungry soldiers at the front.
According to Simon Sinek, this ‘leaders eat last’ culture stands in stark contrast to today’s Western corporate culture full of fast results, greed and self-interest. “In the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In Business we are giving bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice people so that we may gain”, he writes. But leadership is not a ‘free lunch’. There has been a social contract between a group and the leader since time immemorial; the leader can only claim certain privileges or status symbols in exchange for protection, putting the interest of the group before his own. He provides an internal ‘circle of safety’ and protects the group from external danger. That’s why a lot of people react furiously to the practice of overpaid corporate leaders sacrificing their staff for exuberant profits and temporary rising share prices. No human being would have felt aggrieved at the fact that Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa pocketed a bonus of hundreds of millions of dollars, writes Sinek. And this is because they respected the social contract with the group. Mandela and Mother Theresa were willing to make sacrifices for the good of the group, putting the welfare of others above their own despite their personal suffering, such as Mandela’s years in prison on Robben Island. “Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food of their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last.”
Sinek has taken his cue from Robert K. Greenleaf who introduced the concept of Servant Leadership in his essay ‘The Servant as Leader’. Greenleaf writes: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. (…) The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”
While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by someone at the ‘top of the pyramid’, servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform to the best of their ability.
Promoters of servant leadership like to refer to exemplary figures such as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and even Jesus Christ... no doubt very inspiring figures. But are these ideals achievable? I think Simon Sinek and Robert K. Greenleaf get depressed when they open the morning paper. Below is a random selection of news reports from Spring 2021:
The scandals in the US with energy company Enron and media company WorldCom, in the UK with construction company Carillion, in Italy with dairy group Parmelat, in France with media group Vivendi, in the Netherlands with the accounting fraud at Ahold... it could make you give up hope. On one hand, the average person is not a saint like Jesus, Gandhi or Mandela, but on the other hand, neither is he a greedy narcissist like Markus Braun, Carlos Ghosn or Jean-Marie Messier. Everyone can make a difference and you don't have to wait for your boss to decide to make your workplace a more pleasant environment. Or, as Bob Chapman describes it in his book Everybody Matters, “Truly human leadership means sending people home safe, healthy and fulfilled. If you are a parent, what do you want for your children? You want them safe. You want them healthy and you want them fulfilled: you want them to live lives of meaning and purpose. Good leadership and good parenting are both about taking care of the people entrusted to you.” Bob Chapman inherited the Barry-Wehmiller industrial company in 1975 and built the group from 20 million to 3 billion dollars in sales through 100 acquisitions. When a worker pointed out to him that blue-collar workers had far fewer rights than administrative workers (blue-collar workers had a time clock while admin workers didn’t, blue-collar workers couldn’t call home while admin workers could use the work phone for short private calls), Chapman developed a corporate culture in which ‘everyone counts’. While the heavy financial crisis in 2008 rained down redundancies in many American companies, Chapman and his management worked on several measures (he returned to his original 1975 salary and everyone in the company took four weeks’ unpaid leave) which enabled them to keep everyone on board.
Finally, I’d like to give you some ideas that you, as a leader, can work with to help you break free from self-interest and make decisions with the employees front of mind.
Be aware every morning that the advantages you enjoy are a consequence of the position you hold and not of the fact that you are such an incredibly talented John Johnson or Jennifer Jefferson. In his book, Simon Sinek gives a beautiful anecdote about a former US Deputy Secretary of Defence who gave a speech at an international conference, “Today I stand before you with a Styrofoam coffee cup. Yesterday, I took the plane to this city in economy class. At the airport, I took public transport to a budget hotel. This morning, I took a taxi to this conference room and I bought myself this instant coffee from a vending machine. What a difference from last year when I was a deputy minister. Then I flew first class. A private chauffeur brought me to my suite in a luxury hotel. In this conference centre, a delicious caffé latte in a porcelain coffee cup was served to me in a VIP room.” Too bad our mayor of Sint-Truiden didn’t hear that speech. Perhaps it would have made her realise more quickly that it is difficult to ask for a population’s understanding for a long wait for vaccination when you, in your official function, take advantage of the first opportunity to skip the queue.
Be aware of the shadow you cast as a leader. Be aware of how your actions and your words are interpreted by others. A few years ago, we received a message from my daughter’s primary school that they would be focusing on healthy food the following week. Parents were asked to give their little ones only healthy snacks such as a piece of fruit or a nut bar. On Monday evening, at the kitchen table, our little daughter told us that the teacher had eaten two chocolate bars during the break which upset her. It’s a pity that our mayor of Sint-Truiden was not at our kitchen table that evening. Perhaps this would have made her realise more quickly that her abuse of power could be interpreted negatively by the population.
Work with your staff on a paradigm shift, whereby the focus within the team is not on the mission or objectives, but on the staff themselves. You work on a mutual bond of trust where the leader supports the team members in their development and success and they do everything to achieve the organisation’s mission. Let me quote Bob Chapman again: “At Barry-Wehmiller, our primary purpose is crystal clear to us: We're in a business so that all our team members can have meaningful and fulfilling lives. We do everything we can to create an environment in which our people can realize their gifts, apply and develop their talents, and feel a genuine sense of fulfilment for their contributions. In other words, Barry-Wehmiller is in business to improve lives. We do that through the building of capital equipment and offering engineering consulting. But that’s our what, not our why. It simply provides the vehicle, the economic engine through which we can enrich the lives of our team members.” Too bad our mayor of Sint-Truiden has not read this book. Maybe she would have vaccinated others before being vaccinated herself...
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