Simon Sinek: Why Team Leadership is Like Parenting, from Leaders Eat Last

Is your office a cohesive team that comes together to solve problems (like the Avengers), or several small groups vying for control or protection (like The Godfather)? According to leadership expert Simon Sinek, many modern offices have regressed to a prehistoric state of nature where life is nasty, brutal, and short. By this he means the corrosive disarray that arises when people spend much of their time worrying about protecting themselves rather than trusting and cooperating with their colleagues. In many companies, there is so little trust that productivity, innovation, and competitiveness are in serious jeopardy. Sinek details the problem and the solution in his new book Leaders Eat Last.

We had the privilege of joining Sinek during his recent visit to Microsoft Research. In the course of his captivating talk (his TED talk is the second most viewed of all time), he laid down four key points that any person choosing to be a leader needs to know.

For Sinek, good leaders are defined by four things: people must always come first, honesty is essential, allowing others to fail is critical, and the best analogy for good leadership is parenting.

1. People come first

Historically, leaders were the people around the camp fire who made us feel safe because we knew they would be the ones to charge in the direction of danger to protect us. This expectation has translated to modern leadership too. As Sinek put it, “We expect leaders to never sacrifice people for the sake of numbers.” He added, “Sometimes a leader will lose his job and sacrifice himself in order to do the right thing.”

You can run a company; you can’t lead a company. You can only lead people…

2. Honesty is essential 

Sinek drew the distinction between many CEOs who are authorities but are not choosing to be leaders. “You can run a company; you can’t lead a company. You can only lead people…

Telling the truth should be a given in business. But in our modern world, we lie without even realizing what we’re doing. One of Sinek’s examples involves condoning lying by using the classic “tell him I am not here” dodge when there is someone on the line you don’t want to talk to. By using this seemingly innocent refrain, you as a leader have just condoned lying and dishonesty in your organization.

Many of Sinek’s other examples involve the military and the strict discipline that is essential if troops are to trust their leaders in combat. The story of two marines who fell asleep when on watch was particularly telling. One marine who took responsibility for his actions immediately was punished and then allowed to return to duty. The other marine who denied that he had fallen asleep until he was confronted with proof was discharged because he couldn’t be trusted.

If lying is condoned, you won’t be trusted as a true leader.

3. Allow others to fail

Individuals perform the best when they feel a sense of ownership over their work. To truly empower people to take responsibility for their own actions, good leaders must be ready to let others fail rather than succumb to the temptation to micromanage them. This, one of the more counterintuitive of Sinek’s lessons, is drawn heavily from Turn the Ship Around, a book about a submarine captain who took his crew from being the worst in the fleet to the best in naval history by instituting a simple but revolutionary change.

Early in this captain’s command, he gave an order to go “ahead two-thirds” that was repeated by his second in command. Unbeknownst to the captain, this officer knew full well that the seaman at the controls would be unable to carry out this order. Why? Because there was no two-thirds setting on the controls of this particular submarine. At that point, the captain realized that he had inherited a crew that was trained for compliance, not for success.

His solution? Switch from standard naval parlance in which you “request permission to …” to the more empowering “I intend to …” This simple change shifted accountability and decision-making power to the people who were closest to the problem. The results speak for themselves.

How does this lesson translate to today’s business world? Have you ever sent a subordinate away after reviewing his or her work (now covered in red pen marks or track changes) and instructed him or her to “Make my changes, and come back?” Sinek once had a boss who did exactly that. And guess what? Sinek eventually stopped trying because he knew no matter how hard he worked, the boss would always make him rewrite it anyway.

What we are all looking for is to feel that our work is valued. Take away people’s ownership over their work, and you’re telling them you don’t value what they do. So instead of protecting decision-making power at the top of organizational structures, Sinek argues you must push decision-making power down as far as possible so that the people with the most information have the power to act on it. Not the other way around. Pushing information up to decision makers rarely, if ever, works.

4. Real leadership’s closest analogy is parenting

Sinek believes that much like choosing to have children, you choose to become a leader. And like parenting, the ROI of leadership can’t be measured in small chunks. Leadership builds up over time and eventually pays off in the long run.

Like parents, leaders are expected to sacrifice themselves for the good of their people. And this is where Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last book title comes from. In the US Marine Corps, there is no rule that says the most junior soldiers get to eat first. But every unit around the world does it because they know that real leadership means a willingness to sacrifice yourself for the good of the many.

The long, exhaustive process of becoming a leader pays off when the mess hall runs out of chow, and your troops voluntarily share their food with you. This is where today’s business leaders must learn from Sinek’s examples. If you expect your teams to come together and really deliver, they have to know that you would sacrifice yourself for them. When they do, you will reap enormous benefits of an office that has evolved beyond the state of nature.

This post is part of our ongoing coverage of Microsoft Research and its Visiting Speaker Series. Microsoft Research supports its mission to educate and foster innovation and growth through inviting authors and speakers that inspire big ideas, spark new ways of doing things, or help people see things from a new perspective.