Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Should leaders eat last?

Should leaders be the ones to eat last? The US Marines believe so, as it shows they care for their people and are prepared to sacrifice for them. It’s why Simon Sinek chose Leaders Eat Last as the title of his best-selling book, first published in 2014. We selected it as the topic for our Rotary Club’s recent Book Club meeting, where we also discussed how Sinek’s American context applies here. I certainly don’t need to comment on when most of our Kenyan leaders eat – definitely not last!

Central to the requirements for being the kind of leaders Sinek wishes to see is the generation of broad “Circles of Safety” in their organisations. Within these circles staff trust one another, are therefore open and collaborative and so perform well, not least in dealing with external threats. Such leaders promote integrity and have evolved an uplifting purpose for their people, which generates the stamina to defer gratification and reach for long-term sustainability.

There’s lots more in the book about good contemporary leadership, including examples of role models who defy the pressure to go for easier short-term results. By contrast, leaders who turn a blind eye to the benefits of circles of safety tend to reduce their consideration of people issues to mere numbers, making it much easier to slash staff levels in hard times without feeling any pain or empathy. It’s why one of us homed in on Sinek’s insistence on the development of a healthy culture being at the centre of positive leadership.

For me it was interesting that the book was published in 2014. As had Sinek been writing it today he would have explicitly placed Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) issues at the heart of everything, since much of what he complained about and sought is what ESG initiatives promote: ethical sustainability.

We all appreciated Sinek’s easy-to-follow description of the four hormones, the biological chemicals within us, two selfish and two selfless ones that get stimulated in our system. On the selfish front we have Endorphines and Dopamine, that drove our ancestors to be hunter-gatherers. Endorphines mask physical pain, as in “the runner’s high”, while Dopamine makes us feel good when we accomplish something.

Then Sinek describes the selfless chemicals, that make us feel valued when we are appreciated and trusted and keep the circle of safety intact. Serotonin makes us feel strong and confident, proud, while Oxytocin delivers the feeling of friendship and love when we are with close and trusted friends. It makes us social, and feeling that we belong.

We noted that our Rotary presidents tend to eat last, after they’ve done with managing our lunch meetings, but generally we felt that leaders should be eating with their people not after them. We all agreed though that leaders should be the last to speak, having first listened to the other voices.

Uhuru Kenyatta was one of those who recognised the organised discipline of military leaders, putting senior military officers in charge of Nairobi County, the Kenya Meat Commission and elsewhere. And just now William Ruto praised the leadership style of the late General Ogolla. “Are there lessons here for our politicians?” asked one of us, “Or are they beyond redemption?” My concern is that I don’t see them ever sitting together as we were at our Book Club, discussing the fundamental issues of leadership. It’s what should be happening more of at places like the Kenya School of Government.

On the positive side though, we heard praise for the progress made in Makueni County, thanks to its first Governor, Kivutha Kibwana, and now Mutula Kilonzo Jr. I could also have added the good example of the first Governor of Laikipia, Ndiritu Muriithi, another who showed how a leader can make a transformative difference.

Towards the end of the book Sinek writes extensively on why millennials are as they are and how to handle them constructively, and here two of our members talked about their challenges in dealing with such young ones in the medical field. Sinek helps us understand the importance of when and therefore how different generations were brought up, and I mentioned that I am too old to be a baby boomer, having been born before World War II was over. I have therefore been brought up with frugality, which I have held on to since… like squeezing the last bit out of toothpaste tubes. ‘Me too,’ echoed another Rotarian, much younger than me… and a dentist by profession!

In conclusion, reading the book stimulated us positively, so my fellow Rotarians and I recommend it to you.