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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Why is it important to set long-term goals for your organization? How does focusing on short-term goals stifle your progress?
Many leaders don’t even think about their long-term business goals, focusing on short-term profits instead. According to management theorist Simon Sinek, short-term focus impedes progress because it stifles oxytocin and empathy. 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.
Here’s how short-term focus stifles progress and why you should prioritize long-term goals.
Prioritizing Short-Term Goals Stifles Oxytocin
According to Sinek, a major reason you should prioritize long-term business 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.)
Types of Long-term Goals
According to Jerry I. Porras and Jim Collins in Built to Last, there are four kinds of long-term goals:
- Ambition goals, where you focus on meeting a quantitative target (for example, a burger franchise selling 100 million burgers in 10 years)
- Challenger goals, where you focus on beating or replacing a competitor (for instance, a new browser company becoming more used than Google)
- Icon goals, where you focus on emulating a successful company (for example, a small animation studio becoming as successful as Pixar)
- Refresher goals, where you focus on shifting your current flawed products or reputation to something more profitable and respected (for instance, making high-quality, leather notebooks instead of flimsy paperback ones)
Porras and Collins say that these kinds of long-term goals take 10 to 30 years to complete and require a lot of commitment and teamwork. This could explain Sinek’s belief that focusing on long-term goals can increase oxytocin production: By instituting this kind of goal, you require your subordinates to spend a lot of time working together to fulfill it. Working together is a form of social contact which, as Sinek explains above, increases oxytocin production.
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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