Why Effective Leaders Always Eat Last (and Never Go Hungry)

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Francesco Lucarelli
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Published on Mar 15, 2024

I’m sure many of us have heard about or read the Simon Sinek book Leaders Eat Last at some point. Recently, after hearing from and speaking with many successful leaders from organizations of all sizes, the concept has cycled to the top of my mind. I’m constantly searching for new lessons that I can attempt to adapt for myself and my teams, and these discussions have enabled me to reflect on the virtues that effective leaders bring to the table. If you are like me and hunger for insights that lead to actionable results, I share with you these 6 ideals that leaders at any level can implement.

The Power Is With the People: In most of corporate America, we have become too much of a hierarchical, title-driven culture. While this helps provide “promotion from within” opportunities, it leads to individuals falling into the middle-management trap. Essentially, folks are not fully empowered to make their own decisions (and mistakes), doing just enough to satisfy the title above them while delegating just enough to the title below them. This often results in situations where challenges are not overcome because there are no individuals willing (or able) to take accountability for decisions. Flatter organizations, whether in title or in practice, can help mitigate this and empower individuals to have a greater sense of ownership.

Reward Accountability: Speaking of accountability, when did that become a bad word? Unfortunately, accountability has become synonymous with blame, and this leads people to run away from it. A former CEO of a major medical device company shared that nobody was ever fired for making a mistake, but that people lost their jobs for covering one up. We should all want to be surrounded by those willing to take accountability—for good or bad. Mistakes happen. We’re all human. It’s only when someone steps up and says, “Yeah, I own this one, and I’m going to fix it,” that others look at that example and follow suit.

Be One With the People: Another former executive of an auto manufacturer shared that when they had a problem with a new model rollout, he went directly to the factory floor to figure out what the problem was. He was not getting correct or accurate information in meetings at the director level, so he spent 2 weeks, every day, on the factory lines speaking to dozens of workers “in the weeds.” The net result was finding the root cause of the issue, and the only way to do that was by speaking to those who were directly touching it day in and day out. This is a simple practice that I have implemented just this year with our teams. I host “office hours” every Friday; anyone in our organization can Slack me to get time. I’ve been delighted with the response, and I find it infinitely valuable for me to get a true finger on the pulse of what’s going on at every level (I just hope that those signing up find it equally valuable 🙂).

Attitude Over Aptitude: This is a mantra that I believe 100%. On any given day, I will hire someone with the right attitude, even if they’re lacking in aptitude, long before I hire the most skilled, brilliant candidate with the wrong attitude. The reason is simple: We can all learn or enhance our capabilities. There are countless ways to “coach someone up” and/or provide them with the necessary mentorship and professional development. On the flip side, as an adult, I don’t believe that anyone can change another person’s attitude, and as they say, “one bad apple can spoil the bunch.” I have witnessed and had others share with me how one negative attitude can derail a culture and lead to internal chaos. Attitude > Aptitude. Period.

Embrace the Suck: I’m always inspired by the military and sports teams’ means of motivation and their mantras. This one from the Navy Seals is a perfect one for leaders. You’ll be in situations that are just not pleasant. But avoiding them, ignoring them, or just spotting the problems without looking for the solutions will solve nothing. If you really lean into these moments of struggle, it makes you tougher, smarter, wiser, and better prepared for the next obstacle. It’s like working out at the gym. You may be pushing 50 or 60 pounds of weight, and it feels really heavy and tough. But after multiple sessions, you find that it’s getting easier and less taxing on your body. Did the weight get lighter? Of course not. You got stronger. Same principle.

Leadership Exists at All Levels: Finally, whether you’re in a C-suite role or are a newly minted manager, whether you volunteer with kids or have your own family, every one of us can be a leader in our own way. Try to adopt some or all of the above in your own circumstances and make conscious efforts to implement them on a daily basis. Before you know it, you’ll be leading by example. The greatest benefit of implementing a style of leadership in these ways is that others will begin to step up and do more because they’ll be inspired by you and want to show that example to others. This is the hidden benefit to all of this: a degree of selfishness. If you model these virtues, others will be empowered to do more, providing you with even greater benefits. So, even though you may be eating last, your plate will be more than full in the end.