To be a best-selling author these days you almost have to possess the ability to stop readers in their tracks by offering up something provocative. Consider Simon Sinek’s best-selling book “Leaders Eat Last” as a testament to this assertion.

The book begins with the story of a Special Forces Captain in Afghanistan literally putting his life on the line to provide cover for members of his squadron that were under enemy fire. Sinek offers a detailed, factual narrative of that event to make the following observation:

“In the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we generally give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.”

The purpose of being provocative is to stimulate thought. In this case we get vivid pictures of two very different types of leaders driving two very different types of cultures. Furthermore, it provides imagery that encapsulates the complexity (perhaps the inescapable irony) of consistently and effectively influencing others.

The central theme of Sinek’s message is that people inherently figure out things like organizational culture. After they “get it” they either embrace that culture and its mission (in large part because of leadership) or they trade time for money until something better comes along.

Since no one can actually see a culture, what exactly do they do to figure it out? In large part, they observe what leaders do (i.e., their style, tactics and approach, etc.). Based on those observations, they make inferences. The more we witness leaders putting themselves at risk with us in mind, the farther we find ourselves willing to go for them and the causes/objectives we represent. When we witness leaders putting us at risk to save themselves or advance their careers, the more we realize just how little we really mean.

So what kinds of things do we pay attention to?

  • How leaders hold others accountable
    • Do they intervene with members of our team that are clearly not pulling their weight in support of our mission/goals? Do they pretend they don’t see what is clearly evident to everyone else because intervening would be uncomfortable?
  • How leaders respond when we succeed
    • Do they “step out in front of the parade” and take credit for what our team has accomplished? Or do they pass that recognition around when it deserves to be passed around?
  • How leaders respond when we fail or fall short of desired results
    • Do they distance themselves and blame others? Or do they step up and assume at least partial responsibility?
  • How leaders provide direction
    • Are they legitimately teaching someone how to do something they don’t know how to do and need to learn? Or are they simply making sure everybody within earshot understands exactly who is in charge?
  • How and when leaders ask for our input
    • Do they really want the benefit of our perspective? Or have they already decided on a course of action but feel political pressure to solicit our opinions before they tell us why our ideas won’t work?
  • How and what leaders delegate
    • Do they empower us to take on meaningful projects that we are both qualified and motivated to tackle? Or are they distancing themselves from something they think will never succeed and has the potential to be a huge mess?

So what does all this mean? If you want to gain the distinction of being a leader, you have to consistently behave in a manner that earns the respect and trust of those around you. Ironically, that usually translates to “letting them eat first” and “providing them with cover” when they find themselves under attack!