Leaders Eat Last: Summary, Notes and Lessons - Filipe Silva (2023)

This Book in a Minute (Or Less)

Leaders Eat Last is a book about why we need great leadership, what it looks like and how we suffer without it. It's only indirectly about how to be a good leader, but the first principles are all here: leaders go first and, after great leadership, incredible things will follow. There's a price to pay though. Leaders just have to put the needs of others above their own.

Summary Notes

If leadership, and this book, had to be distilled into a single paragraph Lt. Gen. George Flynn managed to do it in the foreword.

“When leaders inspire those they lead, people dream of a better future, invest time and effort in learning more, do more for their organizations and along the way become leaders themselves.”

Part 1 - Our Need to Feel Safe

Exceptional organizations have exceptional cultures. To build those cultures we need leaders that provide cover from above, so that people on the ground, feeling safe, can just look out for each other.

To exemplify how leaders can foster cultures like this, Simon Sinek shines a light on how Bob Chapman does it at Barry-Wehmiller.

The way of Bob Chapman

Bob Chapman is a CEO that brings a willingness to listen to every conversation. Leaders that listen will engage with people at all levels of the organization to hear what they have to say about what's missing, or where are the hidden roadblocks affecting their work.

When his firm acquired a new company it was by having a conversation with the factory workers that he understood how much they were impacted by differences in treatment between those working in the production line and those sitting at the office.

“I walk in the same door with engineers, accountants and other people who work in the office,” Campbell went on. “They turn left to go to the office and I go straight into the plant and we are treated completely differently. You trust them to decide when to get a soda or a cup of coffee or take a break; you make me wait for a bell.”

The fix came imemdiately and, surprisingly, quietly: all bells and time clocks were removed. Nothing was asked in return.

This is a CEO that understands the fundamentals of trust. It's a simple equation: to earn the trust of people you must extend trust.

After little changes in the environment of this company, people started to act differently toward each other. They didn't have to worry about the environment, they felt safe, valued, and like they belonged. The changes started to also appear in the company's books: from a $55M revenue to $95 since Bob Chapman took over.

Leaders change the environment

When people have to manage dangers from inside the organization, we can't expect them to be also ready to face the dangers from outside. The biological systems responsible for encouraging us to repeat behaviors in our best interest respond to the environments in which we live and work, and naturally, no one will be extending trust, collaborating, or innovating, if they are pressured, coerced, or unsafe.

We have to create cultures where people are inspired to their best work because they love to work for their company, and for that leaders need to fix the conditions where employees do their work.

“As leaders, it is our sole responsibility to protect our people and, in turn, our people will protect each other, and advance the organization together. As employees or members of the group, we need the courage to take care of each other when our leaders don’t. And in doing so, we become the leaders we wish we had.”

It shouldn't be utopic to be able to say that we love our jobs. On the other hand, a 2011 study concluded that having a job we hate is as bad for our health and sometimes worse than not having a job at all.

“Stress and anxiety at work have less to do with the work we do and more to do with weak management and leadership. When we know that there are people at work who care about how we feel, our stress levels decrease. But when we feel like someone is looking out for themselves or that the leaders of the company care more about the numbers than they do us, our stress and anxiety go up.”

The causes for the stress we feel at work might not be so much related to the size of the task at hand or the pressure we feel, but more with the how much control we feel during our day accomplishing that task. Some studies dug deeper and found that the effort required by a job is not the stressful part, but rather the imbalance between the effort we give and the reward we feel.

For parents, researchers also found that a child's sense of well-being is less affected by the long hours their parents spend at work and more by their mood when they come home.

Part 2 - Powerful Forces

It's really simple. If we feel that we belong and trust who we work with we will cooperate and face every challenge together. Without that, we will have to invest in protection for ourselves and the whole group will be weak to all outside threats.

We are social animals and it's by being social that we know each other, establish relationships and gain trust. This was important when we lived in tribes and it is now. When we lead it makes a difference to roam the halls of the office/organizations and engage with people beyond what is required to accomplish work-related tasks.

  • It becomes a work-related "task" to form deep connections with the people we work with;
  • To know who they are, what they need, and what moves them;
  • To be there in the good times, so we are not strangers they can't turn to in difficult times.

When we work with each other and for each other, our bodies will chemically reward us so that we continue doing it.

The four chemicals that shape our best

There are four primary chemical incentives in our bodies: two evolved primarily to help us find food and get things done while the other two are there to help us socialize and cooperate.

Endorphins and Dopamine

The "selfish" chemicals, or in a more positive way, the chemicals of progress. They help us get what we need as individuals - find food, build shelters, and getting things done. How? By making us feel good when we find what we were looking for or achieve a goal.

Endorphins' purpose is to mask physical pain. It can't hurt too much to build a shelter, otherwise, we would quit in the middle and die with hypothermia.

Dopamine's purpose is to provide that good feeling after we do something we needed to get done. It makes us a goal-oriented species.

On vision statements

If a company's vision is to have some meaningful purpose we need to define it in such a way that we can clearly see in our minds what we are trying to accomplish. Only then can dopamine works its "magic" and help us on the chase. Visions work if they explain in specific terms, what will the world look like if we succeed in executing our grand plans. That's why they are called "visions".

Serotonin and Oxytocin

The "selfless" chemicals. They provide the incentive for working together, keeping our promises, and develop trust. They are the backbone of our societies and cultures, and why we pull together to achieve much bigger things than if we were trying them alone.

Serotonin's purpose is to fill us with pride when we get the respect and acknowledgment of our loved ones and colleagues. We need to feel valued for our contributions to the "tribe".

“Whether we are a boss, coach or parent, serotonin is working to encourage us to serve those for whom we are directly responsible. And if we are the employee, player or the one being looked after, the serotonin encourages us to work hard to make them proud.”

Oxytocin is the feeling of love, friendship, and trust. It's key to our survival. It leads us to cooperate, be generous, and make sacrifices for others, without expecting anything in return. It is because of oxytocin that we trust others to help us build our businesses, do difficult things or help us when we are in trouble.

Good leaders provide balance

As with all things important, the goal of the leader is to find a balance between goals and fulfillment. With dopamine as the driver, we may accomplish all our goals, but feel unsupported and disconnected, no matter how much our rewards go up. With oxytocin as the driver we may be content and happy but stagnate without a hint of ambition or accomplishment.

The chemical for trouble

The gut feeling you have when you feel there is something dangerous about to happen is caused by cortisol. Its purpose is to alert us to possible danger and prepare us to take measures to protect ourselves to raise our chances of survival.

Even at work, where hopefully you're not in danger to be eaten by some predator, cortisol is what makes you anxious, uncomfortable, and stressed. Our body is not that advanced to understand that you don't need extra fast reflexes when you're just fighting against a project deadline without support. We get the bad parts of cortisol without needing the benefits.

Cortisol also affects us by inhibiting the release of oxytocin, so it's no surprise that when the times get tougher at work it's also when we start to lose the behaviors that we most need to face together the challenge in front of us.

“If we work in an environment in which leadership tells the truth, in which layoffs are not the default in hard times and in which incentive structures do not pit us against one another, the result, thanks to the increased levels of oxytocin and serotonin, is trust and cooperation. This is what work-life balance means. It has nothing to do with the hours we work or the stress we suffer. It has to do with where we feel safe. If we feel safe at home, but we don’t feel safe at work, then we will suffer what we perceive to be a work-life imbalance.”

Leaders of the organization just need to be conscious of these implications. They want the best for everyone so they just need to create this environment. They have the power in them for it if they assume the responsibility that comes with the role.

This "role" is not the rank. That doesn't make you a leader. Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.

Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up everything we are missing: time, energy, money, even food off their plate. Leaders eat last.

Part 3 - Reality

Leaders have a very simple 4-step game plan already designed for them. They just need to work on putting it into practice.

  1. Teach people the rules of the game;
  2. Train them so they become competent at the game;
  3. Build their confidence;
  4. Step back and trust.

Then comes the real test. In weak organizations, people will break the rules to defend themselves or climb the ladder. In strong organizations, people will break the rules because it's the right thing to do for others.

“When the people feel that they have the control to do what's right, even if it sometimes means breaking the rules, then they will more likely do the right thing. Courage comes from above. Our confidence to do what’s right is determined by how trusted we feel by our leaders.”

Part 4 - How We Got Here

“Better products, services and experiences are usually the result of the employees who invented, innovated or supplied them. As soon as people are put second on the priority list, differentiation gives way to commoditization. And when that happens, innovation declines and the pressure to compete on things like price, and other short-term strategies, goes up.”

Part 5 - The Abstract Challenge

The distance between us and the people affected by our decisions can have a large impact on lives. The more invisible the more abstract people will become. From there on they can quickly be reduced to numbers in an excel sheet and worst.

“When our relationships with customers or employees become abstract concepts, we naturally pursue the most tangible thing we can see—the metrics.”

The opposite is also true: the more visible the more attached we become.

“When we are able to physically see the positive impact of the decisions we make or the work we do, not only do we feel that our work was worth it, but it also inspires us to work harder and do more.”

That's where knowing the people we work with can make a difference. We can start looking at each other like family, feel responsible for their well-being, and in turn, those in the group start to express ownership for their leader. In a Marine platoon of about forty people, for example, they will often refer to their officer as “our” lieutenant. The same can't be said of the more higher rank officers, like “the” colonel.

You can't achieve this with just training for leaders or better pay. As leaders, we need to offer our time and energy to those in our care, and in turn, those managers would be more willing to give their time and energy to their subordinates. And so on. The people with customer-facing jobs will be then more likely to treat the customer better. Oxytocin and serotonin make us feel good when time and energy are given to us, which inspires us to give more to others.

Part 6 - Destructive Abundance

Leadership lesson 1: So goes the culture, so goes the company

In a weak culture doing "the right thing" for me is more attractive than doing "the right thing".

If character describes how a person thinks and acts, then culture describes the character of a group and how they think and act.

In a strong culture, people will feel protected by their leaders and their colleagues have their backs.

Leadership lesson 2: So goes the leader, so goes the culture

The way of Captain Marquet

As a leader preparing for a new job, Captain Marquet spent a year studying his nuclear submarine systems and crew. Like many people in charge, he felt he needed to know as much if not more than his crew to be a credible leader.

Things changed two weeks before taking command. He was assigned a different submarine. One that ranked last in almost every metric the US navy had.

He saw himself capable of turning the ship around and that would only depend on the quality of his orders.

“Even though he knew he would have to rely more on his crew to fill the gaps in his knowledge, Captain Marquet kept that fact to himself. His technical knowledge was the basis of his leadership authority and with that gone, he, like many leaders, worried he would lose the respect of his crew. As it turns out, old habits die hard. Instead of asking questions to help him learn, Captain Marquet defaulted to what he knew best—being in control—and started issuing orders. And it seemed to work.”

With a crew drilled to follow every instruction, the ingredients for something very bad to happen were present: a leader hiding his lack of knowledge and a crew not prepared to question instructions. Captain Marquet immediately recognized that to succeed he would have to trust more his crew than himself. He would have to give authority to those closest to the information.

“Captain Marquet came to understand that the role of the leader is not to bark commands and be completely accountable for the success or failure of the mission. It is a leader's job instead to take responsibility for the success of each member of his crew. It is the leader’s job to ensure that they are well trained and feel confident to perform their duties. To give them responsibility and hold them accountable to advance the mission. If the captain provides direction and protection, the crew will do what needs to be done to advance the mission.”

The best leaders share what they know and ask the right people for help. They foster relationships and create networks so collaboration can happen with the least friction. Poor leaders hide information, thinking that their power comes from exclusivity, rank, or from the relationships only they have access to.

The best leaders train people to think. Poor leaders train people to comply.

This is the goal for all leaders: to give no orders, and that providing direction and intents be enough for people to figure out what needs to be done.

Leadership lesson 3: Integrity matters

Leadership is not just a matter of being good at what you do. That should not be the main criteria to reward someone with a position of leadership. The US Marines consider character one of the main ingredients of good leaders, not just strength, intelligence, or past successes.

Leadership doesn't come from having "leader", "chief", or "head" in your email signature. It is a responsibility that depends almost entirely on character. Leadership is about integrity, honesty, and accountability: the building blocks of trust.

It's not easy to be a leader when every move they make is being watched, and mistakes are visible to many. We look for a constant match that what they say is being reflected in what they do. That's what integrity means: words and deeds are consistent with intentions.

This is decisive for the leaders. We trust that the objectives and direction they define are, at first, for the good of the team and not just for them.

“This is the deal we make with our leaders. We in the group will work hard to see their vision become a reality and they will offer us protection along the way.”

Leadership lesson 4: Friends matter

Establishing relationships is key to lead and being led. We care for the person on the other end of a relationship and not for names on an organigram of the organization hierarchy.

“All leaders, in order to truly lead, need to walk the halls and spend time with the people they serve, “eyeball leadership,” as the Marines call it.”

Leadership lesson 5: Lead the people, not the numbers

“Teams led by a directive leader initially outperform those led by an empowering leader. However, despite lower early performance, teams led by an empowering leader experience higher performance improvement over time because of higher levels of team-learning, coordination, empowerment and mental model development” - Natalia Lorinkova

Long-term organizations foster long-term leaders. These are not the leaders that are stuck forever in the same position, but leaders that steer their teams to achieve what's best for the long-term success of an organization.

This is a challenge because long-term results are only visible in the far future and the illusion of stagnation or even decline might set it. That's where the trust we build through great leadership comes into play.

Leadership is like exercise. You don't see improvements if you compare the progress between two days. You might even think that all that sweat and pain was for nothing. But compare pictures of you before and after a few months of effort and you won't believe the difference. Trust the process.

Part 7 - A Society of Addicts

“Leadership is about taking responsibility for lives and not numbers. Managers look after our numbers and our results and leaders look after us.”

We are biologically tied to the results of our work. We receive shots of dopamine with a marker we hit or a goal achieved. The problem is how our work environments have unbalanced this reward system.

The majority of our incentives are based on hitting number-based goals like X% growth every year and receive number-based rewards for doing it. Even worse is how these goals might be defined per individual and/or for short-term periods, like quarters or a year. There is nothing that encourages a fight for a cause, a bigger purpose, a long-term vision. It can promote however internal competition, between individuals and teams, making the whole organization unsafe from internal threats and vulnerable from outside ones.

Part 8 - Becoming a Leader

The reason why small companies often win the innovation game against large corporations is all about survival.

Small companies have limited resources and need everyone's effort to survive. Like a tribe, everyone knows everyone and that means that if they fail they personally know everyone affected. These conditions are rare at large companies, with plenty of resources and no imminent danger of disappearing.

“Leaders of successful organizations, if they wish to innovate or command loyalty and love from their people, must reframe the struggles their companies face not in absolute terms but in terms relative to their success. In other words, the dangers and opportunities that exist outside the Circle of Safety should be exaggerated to suit the size of the organization itself.”

These struggles must be meaningful and not an abstract metric or a number in a spreadsheet. What gets us moving is when leaders offer us a reason to become a better version of ourselves and, with it, we take an entire organization to the next level. We need challenges that are bigger than the resources we have available, a vision of the world that we want to make a reality, a reason to come to work and love it.

“When a company declares that its cause is to become a global leader or to become a household name or to make the best products, those are selfish desires with no intended value to anyone beyond the company itself (and often not even everyone in the company). Those causes can’t inspire humans because those causes aren't causes. No one wakes up in the morning inspired to champion that. In other words, none of them is a cause bigger than the company.”

We thrive when we need to find solutions to improve the lives of those in our care. Like a parent, being a leader is a commitment to the wellbeing of our people and to make sacrifices for their best interests. It's hoping that after we are gone we leave behind people that will take our mission as theirs and do it better than us.

The mission, if we should choose to accept it:

“Let us all be the leaders we wish we had.”

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