Imagine a world where almost everyone wakes up inspired to go to work, feels trusted and valued during the day, then returns home feeling fulfilled. This is not a crazy, idealized notion. Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why and more recently Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, noticed in his travels around the world that great leaders create environments in which people naturally work together to do remarkable things.
Some of these teams trust each other so deeply that they would literally put their lives on the line for each other. Far more common, unfortunately, are teams that seem doomed to infighting, fragmentation, and failure…no matter what incentives are offered. But why?
The answer became clear to Sinek during a conversation with a Marine Corps general who explained a USMC tradition: "Officers eat last." Sinek watched as the most junior Marines ate first while the most senior Marines took their place at the back of the line.
What’s symbolic in the chow hall is deadly serious on the battlefield: great leaders sacrifice their own comfort – even their own survival – for the good of those in their care.
This principle has been true since the earliest tribes of hunters and gatherers. It’s not a management theory; it’s biology. Our brains and bodies evolved to help us find food, shelter, mates, and especially safety. We’ve always lived in a dangerous world, facing predators and enemies at every turn. We thrived only when we felt safe among our group.
Our biology hasn’t changed in fifty thousand years, but our environment certainly has. Today’s workplaces tend to be full of cynicism, paranoia, and self-interest. But the best organizations foster trust and cooperation because their leaders build what Sinek calls a Circle of Safety that separates (insulates) the security inside the team from the challenges outside.
The Circle of Safety leads to stable, adaptive, confident teams, where everyone feels they belong and where all energies are devoted to facing the common enemy and seizing big opportunities. Leaders who are willing to eat last are rewarded with deeply loyal colleagues who will stop at nothing to advance their leader’s vision and their organization’s interests. It’s amazing how well it works.
I think that Sinek’s Circle of Safety fits well with (and can result from the existence of) the foundational element that Patrick Lencioni discusses in his seminal book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: trust. Lencioni writes that teams that have trust: admit weakness and mistakes, ask for help, appreciate and tap into each other’s’ skills and experiences, and like spending time together.
Hopefully, this sounds like your team but, if not, try putting your organization’s and team members’ concerns ahead of your own, every day. And then watch as others start to reciprocate. You may even want to let your employees and coworkers go ahead of you in the lunch line – it works for Marine Corps leaders!