Leaders Eat Last

This is a book about how Baby Boomers ruined everything.

Just kidding. But only sort of.

This was actually a book about leadership, but it was written by an anthropologist so it had a very different approach than most of the other leadership books I’ve read/heard about so far. Most interestingly, it explained everything in terms of biology and hormones, which makes for an awfully persuasive argument.

So we have a whole bunch of hormones that are responsible for controlling our behavior, but this book focuses on five in particular. Endorphins and dopamine (the “selfish” chemicals), serotonin and oxytocin (the “selfless” chemicals), and cortisol (a stress hormone). The author, Simon Sinek, explains how each of these hormones was necessary for our survival thousands of years ago and then explains how they are applicable in today’s world.

Endorphins are responsible for suppressing pain and discomfort during exercise – five thousand years ago, if humans were hunting or being hunted, it was a huge advantage to be able to keep going moving when you were overworked and exhausted; endorphins gave us that advantage. Dopamine, the other “selfish” chemical, provides a hormonal reward as we get closer to achieving our goals; the bigger the goal and the closer you get, the larger dopamine rush you receive. So if you decided you were going to climb a tree to get to a banana, you would get more and more dopamine the higher you climbed. And when you reached the banana you would get an even bigger rush. In today’s world, you could think of this example in terms of any number of goals you set – say, finishing each mile in a 10K, for example.

Oxytocin is a bonding chemical. It’s generally released through touch, and it connects us emotionally to other people. It’s why cuddling might make you feel closer to someone, and it’s why shaking hands is a widely accepted method of closing a business deal. This is a part of why human beings are social animals. Serotonin is a bit more complicated to explain, but in short it’s also a bonding chemical which causes parents to be proud of their children’s accomplishment. This can be applied to any form of relationship where one person feels they contributed to training the other person for success – like in a mentor/mentee relationship, for example.

Cortisol, as I already mentioned, is a stress hormone. It prepares your body for a “fight or flight” response which makes a lot of sense if the stress is caused by a wild animal chasing after you. It makes less sense, however, if your stress is caused by a bad day at work or a difficult exam. Regardless of the cause, cortisol as a whole host of negative physical and emotional side effects including increased heart rate and blood pressure, difficult sleeping, and, perhaps most notably, oxytocin suppression.

So what does all of this have to do with leadership? Well, as Sinek explains, there is way too much cortisol in the modern workplace. In order for workers to be healthy, happy, and productive they have to feel safe; in his words, they have to be within a “circle of safety.” Perhaps one of the most relatable examples of this has to do with layoffs. If a company has recurring layoffs, everyone is constantly going to be on guard that they may those their job. This releases a massive amount of cortisol, and , more importantly, suppresses oxytocin. So because of this, no one is going to want to cooperate with anyone else; if they share information with another person, they may become expendable and could be let go. And since there’s no oxytocin to encourage bonding, this turns into a vicious cycle where no one wants to help anyone out.For obvious reasons, this does not lead to a very productive work environment.

Instead, Sinek argues, a true “people first” environment will lead to the best possible work environment. People will feel safe, they will trust their employers  and their coworkers, and they will be free to focus their energy on doing their job rather than stressing out over whatever they believe the greatest danger to be.  Therefore, an effective leader should work to create a “circle of safety” among those they lead in order to foster a productive and healthy work environment.

Oh, and about Baby Boomers ruining everything? That’s because they got addicted to dopamine and therefore only focus on the short-term successes rather than the long-term consequences of decisions. That attitude is what caused things like the housing bubble and the subsequent stock market crash, among a variety of other issues (e.g. layoffs).

But I’ll have more to say on that topic in another post. 🙂


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