Leaders Eat Last – A Simon Sinek Reflection

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This Fall, I am beginning coursework to earn my Specialist in Education Degree at Drake University. As part of my first graduate course in this program, EDL 270, I was asked to watch the above video of Simon Sinek’s Keynote at the School Administrators of Iowa Summer Conference.

I found this talk very interesting and relevant, as in my school district; we began our pre-service training this August by watching Simon Sinek’s “How Great Leaders Inspire Action ” Ted Talk. The messaging and philosophy around the “start with the why” concept has created a new methodology by which we are engaging in our district visioning and action planning this academic year.

In the current video, Sinek begins by crediting many of his former great and influential teachers that have shaped his success. Granted, he knew he audience was comprised of former teachers and those very passionate about education, but never less, it made me consider who my “roster” of great teachers are that have played pivotal roles in challenging me, motivating me, cultivating any potential they saw in me, etc. Similarly, as I embark on my new journey to learn more about educational leadership, and as a I aspire to become and administrator myself in a few years, I am left now also thinking of the colleagues, principals, district administrators, and superintendents I have worked with and what lessons I have gleaned from them that will shape my future philosophy and actions as an administrator.

In the video, Sinek makes the point that people always respond to the environments they are in. He makes a compelling argument about how we are able to achieve remarkable success when working in groups and lists several benefits that lie within the structure of working with people we trust. Not all groups are created equally or function at the same levels, but one clear and underlying theme to his message was that when we feel safe amongst our own, our collective efforts are multiplied.

This parallels messaging form Liz Wiseman’s Multiplier Effect. In this book, Wiseman makes the argument that there are 2 types of leaders: Diminishers and Multipliers. Diminishers are the leaders that weaken the collective efforts of those around them by requiring constant validation and reverence to their own brilliance. These types of leaders are hesitant to utilize the talents, ideas, and expertise of the people working around them for fear it might dim the aura of their self-perceived greatness. Contrarily, the most effective leaders, The Multipliers, leverage the intelligence, skills, and ideas of the people around them to create solutions. Multipliers understand that more voices shape better ideas. Multipliers lead from behind to build a collective leadership capacity and organizational flexibility that can overcome difficult challenges through working together toward a common goal or purpose.

Sinek echoes this philosophy when he states, “The only variable that matters are the conditions inside the organization. Leaders need to get the environment right in their own organization.” In essence, Sinek is saying that leaders should pay more attention to creating the right culture for learning, leadership, and sustained greatness than they do in creating “abstract and amorphous vision statements”. Creating the right environment creates feelings of trust and safety among members of the group, causing them to rise to their potential, take necessary risks and adapt to become greater.

As an individual whose educational journey included undergraduate and graduate research and coursework in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, I really bought into Sinek’s idea of the four chemicals of leadership: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Brain-based behavior and the relationship between biochemistry and human behavior is a much-overlooked area within education and educational leadership.

Biologically speaking, Sinek talks about how human behavior is largely shaped by our animalistic instincts. Dopamine creates pleasure sensations in our brain. We are motivated by releases of dopamine, which can occur in many ways. Most importantly, the release of dopamine in our brain is a very addictive and animals, including humans, will often seek continued releases of dopamine at the expense of our own self-interest.

For example, during the academic year of 2002-2003, I was enrolled as a graduate student in a Ph.D. program in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Iowa. It was through my TA experience that at Iowa that I discovered my passion for teaching. In addition to being a teaching assistant, I also conducted my own graduate research in which I surgically implanted electrodes into the lateral hypothalamus of the brains of rodents. The rodents were then conditioned to push a lever, which would apply a mild shock of electrical current to their lateral hypothalamus, creating a pleasure sensation. In so doing, I observed that rats, especially male rats, would push this lever constantly, choosing this behavior over eating and drinking for their own survival.

Sinek also states that humans also crave the creation of structure and organization from chaos. To this end, humans have evolved into hierarchical animals. We are constantly assessing and judging each other: Who is superior in the hierarchy? Who is alpha? These formal and informal hierarchies and struggles for perceived superiority shape much of the hidden culture of schools among students, staff, and school leaders.

However in our endless struggle for superiority, what is the payoff? Why engage in the struggle? Hopefully, our leadership aspirations lie beyond increased monetary compensation and accolades from our peers and colleagues. Leaders need to understand that with increased power comes increased responsibility. Furthermore, Sinek argues that the most effective leaders understand that the cost of leadership is self-interest. Members of the group accept that leaders deserve certain benefits for being leaders, but leaders must also embrace the expectations that are placed on the leader from the group they serve. Leaders must protect the group from danger. Great leaders never sacrifice the group to take care of their interests. Great leaders sacrifice their own self-interests to take care of the people.

Leaders must also understand that titles do not dictate the quality of their leadership. Humans are complex animals, especially within group setting and dynamics. Sinek suggests a basic truth that exists among groups with leaders: “We would rather align ourselves with an average performer that we can trust that a top performer that we can’t trust.” Trust, as it turns out, is a critical factor to effective leadership. Without trust, leaders aren’t really leaders in the sense of being the most effective leaders they can be. Leadership isn’t about barking out commands to subordinates.

In my opinion, effective leadership largely is about facilitating a process to build positive relationships and leveraging the talents, ideas, and passions of the people around you to build a structure and organization that is flexible, resilient, innovative, and sustainable. Leadership is also about mindset. Great leaders have a growth mindset, understanding that learning is a complicated, messy process. Great leaders also embrace the concept of “failing forward” as a way to transition from being “good” to sustaining “greatness.”

I believe Sinek would agree with this, as he talks about how leaders need to look after the people around them. He says:

“Leadership is a choice; a daily practice or putting other peoples lives before your own interests. When you spend a few minutes to make a new pot of coffee when no one is watching, that’s an act of leadership. You are sacrificing your time and energy to take care of those around you.”

The last piece that really resonated with me as is relates to school is the need for principals to not overlook how valuable the teachers in their buildings are. Sinek reminds us that principals are responsible for the people that work with the students and that principals must be mindful that teachers are in their buildings for years, and often, several decades. When teachers feel cared for, they care even more for their own students.

Drawing on the wisdom of Gandhi, Sinek asks us to “Be the leader you wish you had.” I couldn’t agree more.

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