It’s Not About The Food – Why Leaders Eat Last
Simon Sinek is famous for one of the most popular TedTalks of all time and for asking provocative questions about why some teams can rally through adversity and get things done while others fall apart at the first sign of trouble, or just can’t figure out a way around the obstacle in their way. Sinek’s central theme in his recent book “Leaders Eat Last” is an ongoing case study of the military ethos I have referenced before about chow hall behavior, and the way that successful companies have figured out how to infuse their organization with the same approach to building successful teams.
To those with prior military service, this is not a groundbreaking revelation. It might even qualify as amusing that the civilian world has “discovered” a culture that emphasizes mission success from the top down and the ground up, in a variety of ways. As Sinek admits, there are some foundations for this culture that just don’t translate well into the civilian world, whether business or government service. It has been boasted often (with pride I might add by senior Marines) that if two Marines are in a foxhole or walking together, one is in charge. That approach to leadership can encounter difficulties if expected in a professional working environment, but it is surely a clear example of how serious Marines take their leadership expectations within the organization.
Team Rubicon, a group dedicated to harnessing the volunteer power of veterans to assist in natural disasters, has a great top 10 list of habits learned in uniform that includes some of the same culture that Sinek discusses in his book. Leaders can find all sorts of inspiration here but the list expounds a bit on the reason why leaders eat last. This act not only communicates your single-minded focus on the well-being of your team, but demonstrates that your leadership brand will be servant-based, eschewing personal gain or the privilege of rank, and a statement that if necessary, you will sacrifice for your team. Nothing builds trust quicker with a team than to know that the boss will put their butt on the line for them, without hesitation, and that you will share their risk.
Teams will test new leaders early on to get to the heart of this matter. It’s critical, as it should be, for the team to know what they can expect from their leader. It has happened throughout the millennia, back to the Spartans, so don’t be offended when your opportunity comes. I will always vividly recall an incident over a decade ago, in uniform on foreign soil. In the bigger scheme of things, it might seem trivial today. But, it was very serious at the time and in my opinion, set the tone for the rest of the deployment and what was to be accomplished. In the unit at the time, there was a culture like other services and units, that said if you misplace your equipment, you need to earn it back. Although it was generally used to ensure that new members developed good habits about being accountable for their gear, it also from time to time served as amusement to see if you could snake someone’s gear from them without their knowledge and then demand payment.
However, payment was not in money. It was in repetitive physical exercise, to the point of pain. On the date in question, we had been up for 24 hours, on a security detail. We were dog tired and waiting for transport back to our base. In a tight group of 30, we flopped on the dirt, and generally catnapped while waiting for the trucks. During this time period, someone slipped an important piece of gear literally out of my hands. As the trucks were pulling up, I was roused awake, and immediately knew I’d been had. Now, with my team gathered around me, one of the troops produced my missing gear and quietly asked how much I was willing to pay. With 30 pairs of eyes upon me, the test was whether I’d pull rank, or take my lumps. When I said that I would pay the going rate, my tormentor smiled and just as quickly doubled it, befitting my officer status. Thus, for the next 15 minutes, I found myself doing flutter-kicks, on my back, at a four-count, till I had earned my gear back. I had to be helped into the truck because I could not literally stand up straight, but any doubts about my willingness to earn my way, and disdain my privilege were settled right then and there. As a postscript, the young man who charged me for my gear is now a senior enlisted man, a great friend, and a trusted advisor for many years.
As a leader, ask yourself whether you eat first or last. Do you give credit to others but accept blame yourself? Do you claim your perks if available? Your rank is meaningless if it is not accompanied by accountability and responsibility. It is not important to have your team develop an emotional attachment to you to prove your worth (or their loyalty). Instead, it is important for them to develop the knowledge that their needs come first, and that they are more important than your ego. When your test comes, understand what is at stake and remember, leaders eat last.
The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant. – Max De Pree