Simon Sinek: ‘Leaders Eat Last’

You can run a company, but you can only lead people, ACUC keynoter says.

May 13, 2014

Simon Sinek

While researching his latest book, author/ethnographer Simon Sinek asked a Marine Corps general why the organization is so effective.

The general replied, “Officers eat last.”

Marines, he explained, line up in rank order when they eat—the highest-ranking officer eats last while the lowest-ranking personnel eat first.

“This flies in the face of how we usually do things in the business world, where entrepreneurs are told ‘pay yourself first’ and executives afford themselves every advantage,” says Sinek, who’ll address CUNA’s America’s Credit Union Conference (ACUC) in San Francisco (June 29 to July 3).

“The Marines do this not because it’s in a rulebook but because of how view leadership: It’s not a rank, it’s a responsibility, like a parent who puts his children’s needs before his own,” he says. “That’s the responsibility of leaders: to put those in their charge before themselves. One of the ways that manifests itself is in the chow hall.”

Business leaders can “eat last” by putting employees before the bottom line—supporting their efforts, helping them advance professionally, and giving them opportunities to try and fail without being punished.

“Often in the business world we confuse what the role of the leader is,” Sinek says. “No one can lead a company. You can run a company, but we can only lead people. The people inside in the organization are responsible for the customers, the clients, or the bottom line. The leaders are responsible for the people.”

Putting financial results before people forces employees to spend their time and energy protecting themselves from the company leadership—or each other.

“Anytime someone feels compelled to write a CYA email, this is a sign that they don’t feel safe in the organization—they’re literally spending time to write an email to protect themselves as opposed to committing that time and energy to serve the organization,” he says.

Leaders can change this type of culture by putting people first. “A great leader would never sacrifice people to save the numbers,” Sinek says. “A great leader would sacrifice the numbers to save the people. That’s really important.”

Why should leaders start with "why?" Stay tuned for more words of wisdom from ACUC keynoter Simon Sinek.