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  • Ninay Desai

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

Leaders Eat Last begins with a foreword by George J. Flynn, a Retired Lieutenant General of the U.S. Marine Corps. The General gets straight to the point in his opening sentences,

“I know of no case study in history that describes an organization that has been managed out of a crisis. Every single one of them was led.”

That’s what Leaders Eat Last is about – the difference between managers and leaders, what makes a leader and how all of this impacts everyone with a job, regardless of their place in the totem pole called workplace hierarchy.

A copy of Simon Sinek's Leaders Eat Last lying on a stubbled ground, propped up against a folded red-and-white umbrella. A sugarcane field and an electric transformer are visible in the background.

Feeling valued, safe and brave enough to take risks for the greater good is on everyone’s wishlist, even if it isn’t verbalised. Simon Sinek shows us how the answers to most of our modern-day troubles lie in our prehistoric biology simply because our species hasn’t changed that much. Everything we do and are is rooted in our biology. And there’s no fooling Mother Nature.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters about how the happiness chemicals – endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are responsible for so much that we do; from squeezing in a morning run before work, helping with the dishes after dinner, chasing quarterly sales targets at work or catching up with friends over a drink. We many think it’s about discipline, motivation or affection. Simon Sinek demonstrates that it is about all of the above but that wasn’t Mother Nature’s original intention. As is usually the case with most things that Nature engineered, it was about survival.

As is cortisol – the stress hormone. Sinek does a great job of explaining in conversational language how these hormones work and why our world today is causing them to malfunction a wee bit. He uses the metaphor of a snowmobile in the desert. Nothing wrong with the snowmobile or the desert. They’re just not an optimal match.

Leaders Eat Last is not one of those books that elaborate only on the problem. Sinek explains why the problem is the problem. He illustrates why large organizations often have trouble holding on to a culture of teamwork and instead break up into silos with paranoia and distrust flowing through the corridors. And it’s not just about Dunbar’s number (which states that we can maintain only around 150 stable connections) but more fundamentally, it is a result of what these organizations stand for and reward.

For instance, if meeting the quarterly sales target is the sole aim and only the people who achieve it are rewarded, while the rest are at risk of losing their jobs, then innovation requiring a long-term approach is not likely. Neither is team work. Sinek ties each of these to the hormone they generate, making logical connections to the consequences of each type of behaviour.

Before he became a TED talk sensation (Sinek’s 2010 TED talk “How Great Leaders inspire Action” which grew out of his 2009 book, Start with Why is amongst the most viewed TED talks ever), Simon Sinek began his career in advertising, so he certainly knows how to brand and sell an idea.

One of these ideas is Circle of Safety (I assume he came up with it since I haven’t heard it being used in a similar context earlier) and uses the analogy of a herd to demonstrate why being liked and protected releases serotonin, while being sidelined leads to feelings of stress and anxiety caused by cortisol pulsing through our systems. Destructive Abundance is another such term. It signifies the imbalance between selfish pursuits and selfless pursuits and its results. Sinek stresses the importance of the social contract of leadership.

Leaders Eat Last also lays out the roles played by various generations over the last 100 years, and how each of them partly rebelled against and partly perpetuated the ethos they grew up with, and where all of it has brought us. Of course, no one book can summarise the events of a century and their consequences, but Sinek lays down the threads of his thought process. And the rest is for us to think through.

Sinek delves into the role of abstraction in today’s behemoth corporations and why it leads to a lack of leadership and accountability. What he refers to as abstraction is how people- whether employees or customers – become a statistic, an abstract number. Joseph Stalin expressed this succinctly and Sinek quotes him in his chapter, Managing the Abstraction,

“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.”

Abstraction robs not only employees or customers of their humanity but also, the leaders of the corporations of theirs, because they no longer see their actions impacting people. They view their actions as only affecting digits on a spreadsheet. Sinek conveys this disconnect when he writes,

“Numbers of people aren’t people, they’re numbers.”

Speaking of numbers of people, Leaders Eat Last discusses how teams or organisations can cultivate cultures that reward positive behaviour which will, in turn, reap them long-term benefits. Sinek isn’t talking about some high-flying philanthropic approach. It’s practical and far-sighted. There’s an anecdote or two about Goldman Sachs when it was considered a “gentleman’s” organisation and what makes 3M, the company that makes Post-It Notes, so successful at innovation. It's the kind of stuff that is instantly relatable.

The edition I read also had an extended chapter about leading Millennials, who were probably employers’ least favourite employees till Gen Z arrived on the scene! It’s a fairly practical guide for both employers and Millennial employees to make their work lives more fulfilling and productive.

Read Leaders Eat Last if you want to understand why certain workplaces and leaders make everything seem better and easier while the others do the opposite. It might also help you formulate a checklist of what to look out for before joining a new workplace. And most importantly, to think about what kind of leader you aspire to be.

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