Leaders Eat Last


TED star and best-selling author Simon Sinek explains that civilization demands both hierarchy and leaders who are willing to collaborate.

Simon Sinek’s Start with Why shares the title of his TED Talk, the second most popular video on In this Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller, Sinek challenges assumptions about how and why people seek and accept inspiration from leaders and organizations.

After speaking to representatives of the Congress, high-level United States military officers and corporate leaders, Sinek cites examples from his interviews and from history to demonstrate how the most thoughtful, charismatic and successful leaders inspire trust by prioritizing other people above their own interests.


Sinek recounts that Sparta, a small Greek city-state, mounted an equally small army that inspired both dread and admiration among its allies and enemies due to the Spartans’ power, bravery and fortitude. Sinek is fascinated that ancient Spartans reserved their toughest punishments for its own soldiers who dropped or lost their shields, since a soldier who surrendered his shield put all other fighters at risk. Sparta stripped a soldier who lost his shield of his most precious asset: his Spartan citizenship – his proof of belonging to the community.

Sinek asserts that many corporate titans put their own interests first, costing their companies money and credibility. He pulls no punches in calling out firms that place shareholder value above protecting their people, and he finds plenty of examples. That’s hardly a revolutionary viewpoint, but it’s still somewhat rare to find a public intellectual willing to say that not all corporate leaders are benign and collaborative.

Oxytocin and Cortisol

Sinek discusses the human hardwiring that leads people to cooperate with one another to fight against outside threats. When people collaborate to reach a goal, Sinek explains, their brains release a feel-good chemical – oxytocin. On the other hand, in an environment of distrust, the brain releases cortisol, a stress chemical associated with responding to danger. Sinek relies a little too heavily on brain chemistry to explain human behavior, but he argues compellingly that maintaining a high-trust corporate culture makes good business sense because contented, stress-free employees emitting oxytocin, work longer and harder and with greater enthusiasm. Sinek warns that an office atmosphere of distrust stifles collaboration, inspiration, curiosity and common goals. That sounds like common wisdom now, but the book dates from 2014 when this was a newer idea.  

Tribal Practices

Sinek attempts to establish an analogy between business offices and tribal cultures. He argues that hierarchy is the way of human nature, Darwinian survival, business and tribes. Innate equality, he asserts, is a myth.

Sinek tries – and fails – to make the point that nobody objects to people above them in the hierarchy having better food or a more convenient parking place or a more beautiful companion. Perhaps Sinek spent too much time around the military, where rank is everything, or around the upper echelons of corporate America. At those heights, those lower on the scale would be fired or demoted instantly if they complained. Would Sinek actually be surprised, however, that people at the bottom of the wage scale complain bitterly about corporate executives or the rich plundering the best for themselves? If so, that would be an incongruous blind spot in his perspective.

The Santa Fe

Sinek recounts the career of David Marquet, who thrived at the US Naval Academy and gained a top honor – command of the USS Olympia, a fast-attack nuclear submarine. Sinek delights in the boat’s rigorous performance standards and appreciates the crew’s constant stress. He recounts that the Navy later yanked Marquet from the Olympia – one of its highest-ranked boats – and put him in charge of the USS Santa Fe, which had the lowest-ranked crew in the fleet.

Marquet told the story in his 2013 best-selling book, written with Stephen R. Covey, Turn the Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, but Sinek’s detailed recounting adds his informed overview about the way organizations and leadership work. Sinek points out that submarines are not like regular companies. Once at sea, a captain can’t replace an underperforming crew member.

In response to a mediocre crew, Sinek relates, Marquet decided to give those who worked closest to the source of information the authority to act on it without seeking permission from a superior. Accordingly, Sinek recounts, Marquet sanctioned an extraordinary change. He had crew members say, “I intend to” perform a task, instead of “I will.” This shift, Sinek maintains, ensured that sailors took possession of an action and imbued it with their own intent rather than simply following orders.

Sinek crows that the Santa Fe’s crew eventually gained the highest rating possible under Marquet’s leadership. Even though Sinek posits that authority structures naturally tend toward hierarchy, he notes with appreciation that Marquet’s actions undermined strict hierarchy in favor of individual agency.

Communal Trust

Sinek’s rendering of the saga of the Santa Fe encapsulates his somewhat contradictory outlook, or more likely, his work to build an argument based on contrasts. While recognizing the necessity of hierarchy in human affairs, Sinek believes enlightened leaders take responsibility for the people they lead and empower them. He maintains that such collaboration is the path to shared effort and great civilizations. Sinek is great fun to read, knows a good story when he tells it, and offers a multi-leveled view of questions of leadership and community. Leaders who want to build trust – and to shape a corporate culture in which trust is primary – will welcome his accessible, wise and colorful thoughts.

Sinek also wrote the bestsellers Together Is Better, The Infinite Game and – with David Mead – Find Your Why. He is the presenter of three popular TED talks, Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe, How Great Leaders Inspire and How to Discover Your “Why” in Difficult Times.

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