Why the Empathetic Leader Is the Best Leader

Expert in inspirational leadership Simon Sinek explains our biological need to be part of an altruistic organization.
August 21, 2014

Simon Sinek had penned a best-selling book on team-building and given a TED Talk seen, to date, by 17 million people when he discovered the secret of leadership that now governs his philosophy.

The revelation occurred during a conversation with a Marine Corps official about what makes the corps so extraordinarily tight-knit that Marines willingly trust each other with their very lives. Go into any Marine Corps mess hall, Lt. Gen. George Flynn told Sinek, and watch the Marines line up for their chow. The most junior eat first, followed in rank order, with the leaders eating last. This practice isn’t in any rulebook; the Marines just do it because of the way they view the responsibility of  leadership.

Whereas many people think leadership is about rank, power and privilege, Marines believe that true leadership is the willingness to place others’ needs above your own. For that reason Sinek titled his 2014 book Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t—a follow-up to his powerhouse Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

In Leaders Eat Last, the 40-year-old Sinek proposes a concept of leadership that has little to do with authority, management acumen or even being in charge. True leadership, Sinek says, is about empowering others to achieve things they didn’t think possible. Exceptional organizations, he says, “prioritize the well-being of their people and, in return, their people give everything they’ve got to protect and advance the well-being of one another and the organization.”

Whether we’re leading armies, multinational corporations or a fledgling home-based business, Sinek’s message is the same. “We all have the responsibility to become the leaders we wish we had,” he says in a phone conversation from his New York home.

A Biology Lesson

As it turns out, humans come equipped with a built-in chemistry set that gives us incentives to protect not just ourselves but also others. Four primary neurochemicals—endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin (all essential to normal healthy brain function)—contribute to our positive feelings of happiness, pride, joy, achievement and fulfillment. And beyond just making us feel good (when properly balanced), they ensure our long-term survival.

Endorphins and dopamine are what Sinek calls “selfish” chemicals; they’re released so we’ll persist in the tasks we need to accomplish as individuals. Endorphins mask physical pain with pleasure. They can produce the euphoria of the runner’s high or—as in the Paleolithic era (Old Stone Age)—give us the strength to track prey miles and miles so we have enough to eat. Dopamine is behind the warm flush of satisfaction we feel when we complete a project or reach an important goal en route to an even larger goal. The feeling of satisfaction we get when we cross something off our to-do list is dopamine-fueled, and the release of dopamine increases as we take on larger challenges. “The bigger the goal, the more effort it requires, the more dopamine we get,” Sinek says. “This is why it feels really good to work hard to accomplish something difficult. Something quick and easy may only give us a little hit, if anything at all. There is no biological incentive to do nothing.”

Serotonin and oxytocin are the “selfless” chemicals. Serotonin is the molecular manifestation of the feeling of pride—we get it when we perceive others like or respect us. On a deep level, we need to feel that we and our work are valued by others, particularly those in our group. This compound reinforces the bond between parent and child, teacher and student, coach and player, boss and employee, leader and follower. At the same time, oxytocin is working to promote empathy and trust, allowing those bonds to deepen—unlike the instant-gratification rush delivered by dopamine, oxytocin has long-term effects that become amplified the more we bond with someone. As we learn to trust them and earn their trust in return, the more the oxytocin flows. This is the chemical manifestation of love. “It’s responsible for all the warm and fuzzies,” Sinek says. When we’re in the company of friends, family members and close colleagues, a flush of oxytocin propels acts of generosity that strengthen the connections.

Homo sapiens developed a herd instinct; thanks to those cooperative chemicals, we find comfort when we’re part of a group. “Our confidence that we can face the dangers around us literally depends on feeling safe in a group,” Sinek says. “Being on the periphery is dangerous. The loner on the edge of the group is far more susceptible to predators than someone who is safely surrounded and valued by others.”

Beyond the Reptile Brain

If you were driven only by endorphins and dopamine, you’d have a reptilian brain. Crocodiles, Sinek says, act completely on “me-first” instincts. When two hungry crocodiles spot the carcass of a wildebeest floating down the river, both will lunge at it. The faster and stronger of the two will consume every last bit, leaving nothing behind for his fellow croc. “There is no part of the reptilian brain that rewards cooperative behavior,” Sinek says.

Sinek admits there’s an awful lot of reptilian behavior at the top of companies these days—many corporate environments short-circuit our capacity for cooperation and compassion, instead promoting paranoia, cynicism and self-interest. “In the military we give medals to people who sacrifice so others may gain,” Sinek says. “In business we give bonuses to people who gained when others  sacrificed.”

Crocodile behavior works for a very few people in an organization, at least for a while. “You can absolutely have success when leaders eat first,” Sinek says. “But that success is going to be short-term and less able to weather hard times. In hard times people will not rush to the aid of a leader if they’ve never felt that he or she had put their interests first. You can get a lion to do what you want it to do by whipping it, but at some point it’s going to come back and bite  you.”

Putting profits before people was one reason so many banks and mortgage companies needed to be rescued with huge government bailouts after the stock market crash of 2008, Sinek says. Contrast that, he suggests, with big-box retailer Costco. “People sometimes criticize Costco because of its flat stock performance, but that’s only true if you evaluate on a quarterly basis. If you look over the course of a couple of decades, what you see is slow, steady growth. If you invested a dollar in Costco and a dollar in, say, General Electric in 1986, you would have made about 600 percent on your investment in GE up to now, and 1,200 percent on your Costco investment.”

When the economic slowdown rocked the retail world in 2009, Costco’s then-CEO James Sinegal approved a $1.50 hourly raise for employees, insisting that in a bad economy “we should be figuring out how to give [workers] more, not less.” Today, paying its employees an average of $21 an hour compared with Wal-Mart’s $13, Costco has extraordinarily low turnover—less than 10 percent for hourly employees.

It’s All About Empathy

Sinek says researching his latest book has even changed the way he conducts his own life and business. “The lesson I’m learning is that I’m useless by myself. My success hinges entirely on the people I work with—the people who enlist themselves to join me in my vision. And it’s my responsibility to see that they’re working at their best capacity.”

Empathy—the ability to recognize and share other people’s feelings—is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox, Sinek believes. It can be expressed in the simple words, “Is everything OK?”

It’s what effective leaders ask an employee, instead of commanding “Clean out your desk” when he or she starts slacking off. It’s what you ask a client when a once-harmonious relationship gets rocky. “I really believe in quiet confrontation,” Sinek says. “If you had a good working relationship with someone and it’s suddenly gone sour, I believe in saying something like, ‘When we started we were both so excited, and it’s become really difficult now. Are you OK? What’s changed?’ ”

Sinek has been training himself to be more empathic by paying attention to everyday gestures, such as holding elevators for others or refilling the coffeemaker. Even small acts of kindness release a tiny shot of feel-good oxytocin. What’s more, “These little considerations for others have a building effect,” Sinek says. “The daily practice of putting the well-being of others first has a compounding and reciprocal effect in relationships, in friendships, in the way we treat our clients and our colleagues.”

If Sinek sometimes sounds like someone singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire, he isn’t embarrassed.

“I’m the first to admit that I’m an idealist. Leaders Eat Last is a vision for the future. It offers some explanation of how we find ourselves where we are today and what we can do to change it.” He pauses, then—sounding like anything but a Paleolithic caveman—offers some parting words.

“True leadership isn’t the bastion of a few who sit at the top. It’s the responsibility of anyone who belongs to a group, and that means all of us. We all need to step up, take the risk and put our interests second—not always—but when it counts.”

Check out Simon Sinek’s five precepts of his leadership vision, following his Leaders Eat Last principle.

 

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