Leaders Eat Last: A Side-by-Side Comparison

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

I recently finished reading Simon Sinek's book, Leaders Eat Last. It was given to me by the CEO of an organisation I volunteer under back in March of this year however I've only just got around to properly reading it. And I became absolutely hooked! I feel like it truly challenges the underlying principles of how organisations should consider their culture as well as their structure.


It got me thinking about two different team situations I've been in recently where his theories have been absolutely applicable. At the end of 2017, I had good relationships with both parties. Both situations I went into with an open mind of anticipation but neutral opinions on the respective projects. Each was made up of a small team of 3, two others and myself and each lasted for about 3 months. By mid-2018, I was left inspired with loyalty towards one and boiling with rage at the other...


The Venture

So how did we get here? Effectively over 2017, I slowly built up a relationship with a co-worker who was starting to work on a start-up. I was then asked to work for him over the summer under this venture alongside his co-director.

At the start of this role, we sat down and they briefed me on what the purpose of the organisation was and that I was under no obligation to have to join. They further told me that I had absolute freedom to do what I wanted. A bunch of files were sent on where they currently were at, what they wanted to achieve with the business, the progress they'd made already and an enormous list of what tasks were to be completed (seriously this thing was about 90 bullet points strong and still only "75% of the entire thing").

Not only this but he created a 9-page document brief complete with an Overview, Background, Objective, Business Values, Learning Outcomes and Action Plan. This was completely personalised to me, no other person had been a part of this venture prior.

And so over the next three months, I ended up working harder than I ever had before. I'd be at my normal 8-5 job each weekday and then tirelessly working on the start-up straight after work and even weekends, whilst also meeting up with the co-directors at morning teas and lunch breaks.

But the weirdest thing about it all was that I was completely fine with it? I was happy to work on it late into the early hours of the morning because I finally felt trusted by people to be able to actually create and execute something I wanted to. I was told time and time again that there was no pressure to spend that much time on projects. Because I enjoyed it so much however, I was happy to spend as long as I had to, to ensure the highest possible standard was met.

Despite being a start-up and doing their own thing, the two co-directors spent a lot of time with me. They helped me understand things when I questioned both the fundamentals and technicalities of the business. They provided extremely detailed feedback in rapid time and critiqued down to the finest detail (in a respectful manner). They wanted me to do well so that they could do well.

At the end of February, I was gutted it was over as I had to go back to uni. I wanted to tick even more objectives off the list but it wasn't practical at the time. I finished at that start-up knowing exactly the kind of people I got along with best and exactly the kind of culture I wanted to work with in the future.


The Group Project

After arriving back at uni, I found myself faced with two group projects for two different courses. I had a friend who was also taking the same courses who I'd grown to know over the past couple of years and we decided to form part of the team for each. I knew group projects at university were seldom a good time but surely if I did it with someone I knew, it would be fine, right?


Wrong.

Throw in the added hiccup that this friend was also my flatmate and the situation turned messy indeed.

It all started out okay but before long the friend began to flake on a few of our team meetings due to being overloaded with extracurricular commitments. At first, I was dismissive of it. I overlooked the idea that this would cause problems as I made the assumption he'd catch up and learn from what he'd missed out on.

He didn't.

And it was here that things started to escalate. The other member of our team was becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of commitment from him. Over the next seven weeks, I tried acting as a middle-man between the two. I pardoned Teammate #1's behaviour because he had commitments that I assumed he'd make up for in the future, and attempted to reason with Teammate #2 by justifying this to him.

After seven weeks of feeble/no attempts to revive the situation from Teammate #1, I turned the table completely and started to see Teammate #2's qualms. I was also furious at myself now for having defended #1's actions for so long yet identifying no effort of redemption.

This climaxed by us having a long conversation with one another for about an hour. It was a tense experience; I tried to smooth things out by making Teammate #1 empathise with the impact on the workload his actions had brought. This unfortunately didn't appear to work so he was slammed in the peer review evaluation.

After his grade was then reduced by about 58% the realisation of his actions seemed to hit home. He sat down with us each individually and explained what he'd learned from the experience and seemed to finally understand why we were annoyed and promised he'd make changes in the future. I told him "if you double-back on this, I will have issues in trusting you again".

Just a few weeks later his penalty was lessened by about 18% and he called me up demanding why it wasn't higher. He explained that through the individual conversations we'd each had, not a single person had told him he was in the right which is all he'd wanted. It was at this point, I realised he still stood by his actions and couldn't understand why his lack of commitment to the team was going against him.

NB: This sounds like it's me pointing the blame game solely at this particular individual. I absolutely should have acted sooner by making him see the struggles we were going through. Furthermore, I did not communicate these struggles in an explicit way which I should have done. There are two sides to every coin. Take the above as an example of what not to do.


The Comparison

It's funny that these two scenarios were back-to-back in time and so similar in nature yet the team dynamics could not have been more different. On the one hand, we have an explicitly titled co-director who allowed free reign of his start-up. He expressed trust, unlike any I've ever seen before. On the other hand, we have a team member who assumed an implicit leadership position of a team which drove the team away.

The difference between the two was an eerie combination of things Sinek talks about in his book. The venture featured a co-director who was always happy to look out for others and make them feel welcome in the Circle of Safety. He made a trustworthy environment and put others before himself. He also made time for people - the absolute value which cannot be returned once given away. He put time into making the best quality he could and therefore helped me follow suit.

In contrast to the group project, it becomes clear why it fell apart. Teammate #1 didn't put anywhere near the amount of time into it. He was swamped by so many other things and assuming leadership over the team was a false move where no one backed him. It became clear that he talked a lot of "management waffle" to cover up a distinct lack of knowledge. No one supported him because he would always put his own priorities above those of everyone else.

The difference is notable as it has helped me understand Sinek's perspective both for and against the role a leader has to play in making an effective team/organisation. Whilst both examples are on a very small-scale comparatively, it is evident how they can be magnified to entire corporations.

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