The theme of Simon Sinek’s new book is the importance of people to the success of organizations and corporations. While the argument is not new, the imperative of putting people first and the sometimes depressing reasons why organizations and leaders fail to do so have rarely been presented with the eloquence and insight found in Leaders Eat Last. Sinek, whose previous book was the bestseller Start with Why, builds on a combination of academic research and business case studies to lay out the challenges of a management imperative that is all too often discussed in clichés and easy, step-by-step instructions. His explanation of the evil of abstraction and its impact on management, to take one example, is at once revealing and horrifying.
The concept of abstraction is encapsulated in Stalin’s phrase that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. The story of a young lady killed in a hit-and-run is profoundly moving, Sinek writes. News stories of thousands killed during the Syrian uprising don’t have the same effect — those deaths are too abstract, he explains. A controversial Yale University experiment in which 65 percent of volunteers willingly shocked someone in another room with high doses of electricity is even more disturbing evidence of the insidious power of abstraction — and that power, Sinek argues, is reflected in the corporate world.
Many corporate leaders, he explains, have the same facility to ignore the pain they inflict on others — through massive layoffs, for example — because in a corporate setting, the pain is abstract. Since it is easy to hurt people, it is easy to focus on numbers over people. It is easy, he declares, to destroy the livelihoods of families in order to boost return figures because most corporate leaders have no contact with the families.
The solution to the problem of abstraction, according to Sinek, is to manage the abstraction. Bringing people together is one way. Social media can be an effective communication tool, but regular face-to-face conversations and meetings are essential. Another solution is to follow Dunbar’s Number. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research shows that people can only have a real relationship with no more than 150 people — which is why the 10,000-employee Gore-Tek company still organizes its plants and offices in working groups of about 150 people.
Engaging and Eye-Opening
Abstraction is just one of the areas related to the issue of putting people first that Sinek covers in this wide-ranging book. For example, building on the biology of humans — the balance of “selfish” chemicals and “selfless” chemicals that allow us to both survive and collaborate — he explains why people are most productive and happy when leaders know how to elicit the right balance of selfishness (solving a problem, achieving a goal) and selflessness (creating strong relationships). He describes the “Circle of Safety” framework for an environment that promotes productivity and teamwork and reduces tension and conflict. He highlights the temptation of what he calls “destructive abundance” — when having more makes you want to protect what you have at all costs (such as Bank of America’s plan to charge a debit card usage fee to make up for lost fees under new regulations).
While not everyone may agree with every assertion in its pages, Leaders Eat Last (the title refers to the Marine Corps tradition of officers eating last) is an engaging and eye-opening read, especially for leaders who might think they know all there is to know about putting people first.
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