Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek: Book Overview

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last about? What is the key message to take away from the book?

In Leaders Eat Last, author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek argues that a leader’s primary responsibility is to prioritize her subordinates’ needs above her own. In business, this usually manifests as a manager prioritizing her employees’ personal needs above immediate profit. Ultimately, this helps the company—and its leader—to be more successful.

Below is a brief overview of Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.

The “Circle of Safety”

The key premise of Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek is a “circle of safety.” A circle of safety is an environment where employees feel safe and supported by their manager and coworkers. Sinek implies that supporting your subordinates means paying attention to them so you can monitor and fulfill their needs. By prioritizing your subordinates’ needs, you forge what Sinek implies is an empathetic connection with them: You prove that you see them as people, rather than mere assets to increase profits. Thus, your subordinates feel safe because they can trust you to support them and be invested in their success as well as your own.

Supporting Your Subordinates Encourages Collaboration and Innovation

When your subordinates feel safe and supported, they’re more likely to collaborate and innovate, which makes them more productive. In a supportive environment, your subordinates are comfortable collaborating because they don’t have to compete for your support, Sinek says. This is not the case in unsupportive environments, where support and caring attention are given so rarely (and usually only to those who earn the most profit for the company) that coworkers see each other as rivals for it.

For example, let’s say John is a manager who focuses on creating a supportive environment in which he pays attention to his subordinates and fulfills their needs. John notices that his subordinate Emily is distracted at work. He asks her what’s going on and learns that her children are sick. John offers her paid time off because he knows it’ll make Emily happier and better able to balance her responsibilities as a mother. Rather than only focusing on how Emily can improve company profit, he pays attention to her personal needs and is invested in her success. Because Emily can trust him to pay attention and offer support, she sees her coworkers as partners rather than competitors and helps them succeed as well. This may manifest as deferring credit to a teammate when a project goes well or offering to fulfill a coworker’s responsibilities when they need a sick day.

(Shortform note: Sinek explains that your subordinates will compete for your attention and support but he doesn’t explain why. Experts say this happens because attention and support are essential for human health and well-being. Just as early humans competed for food and shelter, people will compete to fulfill this need as well, destroying collaboration. However, if you meet your subordinates’ needs for attention and support, they’ll subordinates will feel secure enough to share attention and support with other people, leading to stronger relationships, better conflict resolution, and more productive employees.) 

Being supportive also makes your subordinates comfortable taking the risks necessary for innovation, Sinek notes: They trust you to support their efforts to improve the company, even if the innovation costs the company some money or doesn’t increase profits right away. In this environment of support and trust, the group can come together as a united whole to face external threats like competitors or shifting markets in innovative ways, ensuring the company’s success.

(Shortform note: When you support your subordinates even when they make mistakes, you encourage “okay-to-fail” thinking. While this may sound counterproductive—after all, you don’t want your subordinates to fail—research shows that this mindset actually results in higher success and innovation. By allowing your employees to fail, you embolden them to experiment and learn, think outside the box, and adapt to new scenarios. One way to encourage this innovative mindset is Google’s 80/20 method, where employees spend 80% of their time on their established workload and devote 20% of their time to experimental projects of their choice. By building innovation directly into their workers’ day, Google ensures it continually improves.)

Oxytocin Encourages Empathetic Leadership

As discussed, prioritizing subordinates’ needs makes them feel safe because it demonstrates empathy. But why does showing empathy make people feel safe? Sinek says the key to understanding how empathy works lies in a neurochemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin is released by social contact with other people and controls feelings of trust, empathy, and happiness. When you behave empathetically by forming connections and collaborating with others, or by prioritizing other people’s needs, oxytocin provides a burst of happiness and trust. This makes you feel safe and content, which encourages you to further engage in these behaviors.

Oxytocin affects the person being treated empathetically as well as the person behaving empathetically, Sinek says. In other words, when you prioritize your subordinates’ needs, it encourages both you and your subordinates to form connections and be empathetic. Thus, a single person behaving empathetically creates a chain reaction of oxytocin release and empathetic behavior. Over time, this empathetic behavior spreads rapidly through your group, helping your subordinates form trusting connections with each other and encouraging collaboration and innovation.

(Shortform note: Sinek’s chain reaction of oxytocin is one possible form of a more general biological process: emotional contagion. Experts say that when you interact with another person, you automatically mimic their facial expressions, body language, and tone, all of which demonstrate their current emotions. This act of mimicry influences your brain to produce the same emotion as the other person. Thus, as a leader, display and encourage positive emotions like empathy so they’ll spread throughout your group, rather than negative emotions like frustration or resentment.)

Oxytocin Takes Time to Build

Your brain produces oxytocin slowly, Sinek says. Rather than being produced in a single, large dose, it builds over time, and people’s empathy increases accordingly. This can be discouraging for leaders because it means supportive environments (and their greater collaboration and innovation) take time to form and become profitable.

(Shortform note: Sinek says your brain produces oxytocin slowly, but this isn’t true in all situations. Research shows that oxytocin is produced immediately in large amounts during childbirth, sex, and breastfeeding. However, this doesn’t negate Sinek’s point: These three situations are instances where immediate and strong bonding is very important—if you didn’t immediately bond with your child after birth, for example, you may neglect them, which would be bad for the species’ continued survival. As such, humans evolved to produce a large amount of oxytocin in this situation. However, in situations where immediate bonding is less important, like at work, oxytocin takes longer to build.)

Oxytocin’s slow building is an evolutionary defense mechanism, Sinek says. For early humanity, trusting the wrong person could result in their death. So, humans evolved to take their time when forming connections, giving them the chance to determine whether the people around them were trustworthy. For this reason, as a leader, be patient and consistently prioritize your subordinates’ needs: You’ll prove yourself trustworthy over time and your subordinates will start innovating and collaborating.

The Dangers of Not Prioritizing Your Subordinates’ Needs

As discussed, paying attention to and fulfilling your subordinates’ needs creates supportive environments and encourages collaboration and innovation. On the other hand, if you don’t prioritize your subordinates’ needs, Sinek implies that you become a threat to them: You lose your empathy for your subordinates and start seeing them as assets to maximize profits, rather than people. As such, you stop being attentive to or fulfilling their needs, instead only supporting people who maximize profits.

(Shortform note: In The Dichotomy of Leadership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin agree with Sinek that supporting your subordinates is a vital part of leadership. They argue that leaders should coach any struggling subordinates, providing greater support and attention until the subordinate meets the team’s standards. However, they caution leaders to remember their responsibility to the group as a whole, as well as to individual subordinates. If a subordinate doesn’t improve or meet the team’s standards, they can hurt the entire company. At that point, Willink and Babin say you’re obligated to fire them so you can continue to support the entire group.)

In this kind of unsupportive environment, your subordinates don’t feel safe. They focus on protecting themselves and their careers rather than collaborating or finding innovative ways to help the company as a whole. This leaves the company divided and stagnant, unable to effectively counter external threats.

For example, let’s say Robert has a manager that prioritizes profits over supporting his employees. He only pays attention to or fulfills his subordinates’ needs when they maximize profits. Robert has the innovative idea to start marketing the company’s products to a wider range of people. This could bring in a lot of profits, but it would require the marketing team to spend time and money organizing the new strategy, and there’s no guarantee that it would be profitable. Robert worries that he’ll lose his manager’s support if his idea isn’t immediately profitable. Thus, he focuses on maintaining his position and maximizing profits, maintaining the status quo instead of suggesting his innovative idea, which causes the company to stagnate.

(Shortform note: Sinek warns that making your subordinates feel unsafe results in a breakdown of collaboration and innovation. In addition to Sinek’s recommendations for how to prevent your subordinates from feeling unsafe at work, one method might be building social relationships into your subordinates’ work lives. This could manifest as hosting group activities like company picnics, cycling your subordinates through different groups to encourage new relationships, or nurturing existing relationships by assigning friends to the same team.)

Cortisol Hinders Collaboration and Innovation

According to Sinek, a neurochemical called cortisol is the reason people stop collaborating and innovating when they feel unsafe. Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol sends your body into survival mode when you’re threatened. It shuts down any non-essential bodily functions so your brain can identify the threat as quickly as possible.

(Shortform note: Shutting down non-essential bodily functions may help you identify danger, as Sinek suggests, but what if you need to focus on something other than your unsafe feelings? For example, if your child gets lost in a busy mall, you need to be calm and focused to find them, despite the cortisol in your system. If you’re panicking, you may just run around the mall without a plan and not find your child. If you’re calm and focused, you can contact mall security and retrace your steps. To bypass the fight-or-flight response, experts suggest taking deep breaths, acknowledging your feelings of worry and fear, and asking yourself whether these feelings are helpful. This forces you to consider your situation logically, which can reduce cortisol levels and make it easier to focus.)

One of the functions cortisol impedes is oxytocin production. This means when employees feel stressed or unsafe at work, they lack the oxytocin that would otherwise encourage them to feel empathy and form trusting relationships. As such, they’re much less likely to collaborate, instead seeing each other as competitors and threats to their own success.

(Shortform note: The competition caused by a lack of oxytocin that Sinek warns about can make a workplace miserable. Competitive subordinates may belittle their coworkers, take credit for other people’s work, or act like a manager even if they’re not one. These are likely attempts to get attention and support. Experts suggest dealing with a competitive person in the workplace by being direct: Confront the competitive individual and explain how their behavior is impacting you and their peers. Focus on the competitiveness as a problem that you’ll solve together to encourage teamwork rather than defensiveness. In addition, show them that there’s no need for competition by continuing to support and encourage them.)

Cortisol also prevents your employees from innovating: It impedes their ability to focus on things other than identifying whatever made them feel unsafe. When humans identify a physical threat, our bodies release adrenaline, which Sinek implies flushes the cortisol from our systems and alleviates our feelings of insecurity. Unfortunately, most of modern humanity’s threats are abstract, like having too much responsibility at work. When your employees can’t identify a physical danger, their bodies don’t release adrenaline and the cortisol stays in their systems longer, distracting them from creating innovative solutions to problems.

(Shortform note: Sinek presents losing creativity as the main downside to having cortisol in your system for a long time. However, arguably a more pressing problem is the physiological effects of this cortisol response. As cortisol builds in your system, your body gets stuck in ‘production’ mode: Instead of listening to your brain’s signals to stop producing the stress hormone, your body keeps pumping out cortisol. This state of chronic stress damages your immune system and puts you at higher risk for depression.)

How to Strengthen Supportive Environments

Now that we’ve explored the importance of supportive environments, we’ll examine a few of Sinek’s strategies you can use to strengthen your company’s supportive environment and encourage trust, collaboration, and innovation.

Strategy #1: Prioritize Long-Term Goals

As discussed, oxytocin helps you create a supportive environment by forging empathetic connections between you and your subordinates. Sinek believes that you can encourage oxytocin production in both your employees and yourself by prioritizing long-term goals. For example, instead of focusing on your company’s profits for this year, plan how you’ll impact the market for the next five. This puts your decisions in the context of causing lasting positive change, rather than immediate, temporary success.

Prioritizing Short-Term Goals Stifles Oxytocin

According to Sinek, a major reason you should prioritize long-term goals is the drawbacks of the alternative: prioritizing short-term goals. Fulfilling short-term goals encourages your body to produce dopamine, rather than oxytocin. Dopamine is a neurochemical that motivates and rewards you for completing tasks by providing happy feelings, much like oxytocin. However, while oxytocin motivates you to form relationships—a long-term goal, since relationships take time to form—dopamine motivates you to complete short-term tasks—for example, writing a report—and is immediately produced in large amounts. 

(Shortform note: Experts say that part of dopamine’s motivational nature is improved memory: When you successfully complete a short-term goal, you first feel happy, then the dopamine helps your brain store the memory of that happiness. This memory motivates you to try again and reminds you how to succeed the next time you attempt that task. Dopamine-enhanced memory is a good thing, in that it helps you learn and succeed more easily in the future, but it can also have a negative influence, as it can form bad habits by motivating you to repeat unhealthy behaviors.)

Many people neglect their oxytocin production because it takes time to compound and make them happy. Instead, they focus on producing as much instant gratification through dopamine as possible. For leaders at work, this focus on instant gratification manifests as fixating on the company’s daily operations while neglecting how those daily decisions influence your subordinates or the company’s long-term goals, Sinek implies. The more fixated on producing dopamine you are, the less oxytocin you produce, the less empathetic you are, and the weaker your company’s supportive environment becomes.

(Shortform note: Another problematic element of seeking instant gratification is growing a tolerance to dopamine: If you rely only on dopamine to make you feel happy, you’ll be tempted to continually trigger your brain to produce more. However, the more you trigger dopamine production, the less effective it becomes and the more you have to escalate your dopamine-seeking behavior—for example, starting to use drugs—to feel happy. Fortunately, you may be able to reset your dopamine tolerance through fasting: If you don’t trigger dopamine production for a while, your brain will be much more sensitive to it when you do experience it next.)

Strategy #2: Unite Against Common Hardship

Another strategy you can use to strengthen supportive environments is uniting against common hardship, Sinek says. Facing hardship as a group increases oxytocin production: Your brain rewards you for collaborating with your subordinates and coworkers in a threatening situation, and these higher oxytocin levels strengthen the supportive environment.

(Shortform note: Sinek says that oxytocin production increases when you collaborate with others in a threatening environment. Is this any different from collaborating in a non-threatening situation? Experts say yes. When you experience hardship, your brain is more engaged: You must monitor the threat, think of solutions to the problem, and work with others to enact those solutions. This state of heightened engagement means you remember the connections you forged during the threatening experience better than you would those from a non-threatening experience. Since your brain rewards you for forming connections, these strong memories trigger higher levels of oxytocin.)

Most companies unite against common hardship by nurturing a higher purpose. Sinek explains that a higher purpose is similar to a long-term goal in that it takes time and company-wide cooperation to complete. However, higher purposes are more abstract than long-term goals: They usually provide a sense of meaning beyond making profits or dominating a field, and they don’t have concrete timelines for completion. When you and your subordinates are devoted to fulfilling this kind of purpose, the possibility that you’ll fail to do so becomes enough of a threat to encourage collaboration and strengthen the supportive environment.

Higher Purposes Must Be Currently Unachievable and Selfless

Sinek explains that there are two conditions your higher purpose must meet to effectively encourage your group to unite:

1. Your company can’t currently have the resources to fulfill the higher purpose. If your higher purpose is easily fulfilled, Sinek says it doesn’t provide the necessary pressure to inspire cooperation and oxytocin production. Your company needs to continually struggle to fulfill the higher purpose. This struggle applies constant external pressure, which inspires your subordinates to collaborate and experiment with innovative ways of fulfilling the higher purpose.

2. The higher purpose must serve others. Selflessness is an important element of an effective higher purpose because it’s inspirational, and inspired people work harder and are more dedicated. Sinek implies that helping others is inspirational because it prompts your brain to release higher levels of oxytocin. The happy feelings oxytocin provides motivate you and your subordinates to continue working hard and helping others.

On the other hand, selfish goals, like becoming a leader in your industry or making a certain amount of profit, won’t inspire your employees because that goal only benefits the company, which doesn’t release oxytocin.

Amazon’s vision statement is a good example of an effective higher purpose: “to be earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online…” Amazon can’t immediately fulfill this vision because “be the most customer-centric” and “be where customers can find anything they want” aren’t static goals: Amazon must adjust its approach as technology advances and people’s expectations for customer service and products change. Thus, Amazon constantly innovates new customer service initiatives and adds products to its stores, attempting to meet that goal. In addition, Amazon’s higher purpose serves others, as the company helps customers find the products they need, which inspires its employees.

Strategy #3: Combat Abstraction

Sinek explains that combating abstraction means forcing yourself and your subordinates to see your customers, suppliers, and each other as people rather than abstract ideas. This is another way to strengthen supportive environments. As discussed, oxytocin is released through social contact, especially physical contact such as shaking hands. When you don’t have social contact with other people, you stop producing oxytocin and therefore stop feeling empathy for those people: They become abstract ideas rather than people.

When that happens, your focus shifts to what you can understand concretely: your own safety. For company leaders, this usually manifests as making decisions that maximize profits without considering how those decisions will affect consumers and employees. For employees, this manifests as following orders, even if the company or customers would be harmed by those orders. Thus, everyone focuses only on their own benefit, rather than supporting each other or helping the company grow, destroying the supportive environment.

How to Combat Abstraction

In today’s globalized world, most companies don’t have social contact with their customers, suppliers, or even employees, but that doesn’t have to cause a shift to abstraction. Sinek recommends a couple of methods for combating abstraction and strengthening your supportive environment:

1. Interact with your suppliers, employees, and customers in person as much as possible, and help your subordinates do the same, Sinek says. Doing so reminds you that you’re working with people and gives your brain the opportunity to produce oxytocin and form trusting relationships.

(Shortform note: Sinek points out that interacting with people in person helps your productivity by strengthening the supportive environment. Ken Blanchard and Sheldon M. Bowles suggest in Raving Fans that these kinds of interactions can be profitable in a more immediate way as well: When you continually interact with your customers, suppliers, and coworkers, you give them the opportunity to provide feedback. They can alert you to any potential issues and help you adjust your processes and customer service to be the most profitable and productive possible.)

2. Interact with people you’ve helped. As discussed above, inspiration encourages hard work and determination. Seeing the positive effect your efforts have on others inspires you to continue in those efforts. This is why volunteering at a soup kitchen can feel more fulfilling than donating money: Volunteering is more concrete and feels more meaningful.

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek: Book Overview

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Here's what you'll find in our full Leaders Eat Last summary :

  • Why a leader must prioritize her subordinates’ needs above her own
  • How empathy and support can be strong managerial tools
  • Why you must see your customers, suppliers, and employees as people

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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