Leaders Eat Last

Completely agree with the message of the book. It did, however, feel a bit dragged out. Other than that; great book.

22 min read


  • Employees should feel safe and secure.
  • Take care of your people.
  • If you want happy customers, you need happy employees first.
  • Make sure that your people belong. Give them a strong culture based on a clear set of human values and beliefs. Empower them to take responsibility.
  • The degree of control that workers feel is highly correlated to stress. The less control the more stress. The same goes for performance. If you feel safe, you'll perform much better, you'll feel more in control, and you'll be less stressed.
  • "The rank of office is not what makes someone a leader. Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank."
  • Your job as a leader is to teach your people the rules, train them to build competency and build their confidence. Then you step back and trust that they'll do what needs to be done.
  • "Nothing of real value on this earth was built by one person without the help of others."
  • Put your phone away when talking to someone in person.
  • Share what you know. Ask smart people for help. Make introductions to create new relationships.
  • Live with integrity. The importance of this cannot be stated enough.

Highlights & Notes

1. Protection from Above

There is a pattern that exists in the organizations that achieve the greatest success, the ones that outmaneuver and outinnovate their competitors, the ones that command the greatest respect from inside and outside their organizations, the ones with the highest loyalty and lowest churn and the ability to weather nearly every storm or challenge. These exceptional organizations all have cultures in which the leaders provide cover from above and the people on the ground look out for each other. This is the reason they are willing to push hard and take the kinds of risks they do. And the way any organization can achieve this is with empathy.

2. Employees Are People Too

When the people have to manage dangers from inside the organization, the organization itself becomes less able to face the dangers from outside.

Fighting amongst yourselves isn't a very clever thing to do.

Truly human leadership protects an organization from the internal rivalries that can shatter a culture. When we have to protect ourselves from each other, the whole organization suffers. But when trust and cooperation thrive internally, we pull together and the organization grows stronger as a result.

As leaders, it is our sole responsibility to protect our people and, in turn, our people will protect each other and advance the organization together. As employees or members of the group, we need the courage to take care of each other when our leaders don’t. And in doing so, we become the leaders we wish we had.

3. Belonging

The Spartans, a warrior society in ancient Greece, were feared and revered for their strength, courage and endurance. The power of the Spartan army did not come from the sharpness of their spears, however; it came from the strength of their shields. Losing one’s shield in battle was considered the single greatest crime a Spartan could commit. “Spartans excuse without penalty the warrior who loses his helmet or breastplate in battle,” writes Steven Pressfield in his account of the Battle of Thermopylae (the battle upon which the movie 300 is based), “but punish the loss of all citizenship rights the man who discards his shield.” And the reason was simple. “A warrior carries helmet and breastplate for his own protection, but his shield for the safety of the whole line.” Likewise, the strength and endurance of a company does not come from products or services but from how well their people pull together. Every member of the group plays a role in maintaining the Circle of Safety and it is the leader’s role to ensure that they do. This is the primary role of leadership, to look out for those inside their Circle.

Love this analogy.

Intimidation, humiliation, isolation, feeling dumb, feeling useless and rejection are all stresses we try to avoid inside the organization. But the danger inside is controllable and it should be the goal of leadership to set a culture free of danger from each other. And the way to do that is by giving people a sense of belonging. By offering them a strong culture based on a clear set of human values and beliefs. By giving them the power to make decisions. By offering trust and empathy.

4. Yeah, but . . .

Misery may love company, but it is the companies that love misery that suffer the most.

Researchers found that workers’ stress was not caused by a higher degree of responsibility and pressure usually associated with rank. It is not the demands of the job that cause the most stress, but the degree of control workers feel they have throughout their day. The studies also found that the effort required by a job is not in itself stressful, but rather the imbalance between the effort we give and the reward we feel. Put simply: less control, more stress.

A supportive and well-managed work environment is good for one’s health. Those who feel they have more control, who feel empowered to make decisions instead of waiting for approval, suffer less stress. Those only doing as they are told, always forced to follow the rules, are the ones who suffer the most. Our feelings of control, stress, and our ability to perform at our best are all directly tied to how safe we feel in our organizations. Feeling unsafe around those we expect to feel safe—those in our tribes (work is the modern version of the tribe)—fundamentally violates the laws of nature and how we were designed to live.


Unfortunately, there are too many leaders of companies who believe, in the face of external challenges, that the best way to motivate their people is by creating a sense of internal urgency or pressure. Based on our biology and anthropology, however, nothing could be further from the truth.

When we feel like we belong to the group and trust the people with whom we work, we naturally cooperate to face outside challenges and threats. When we do not have a sense of belonging, however, then we are forced to invest time and energy to protect ourselves from each other. And in so doing, we inadvertently make ourselves more vulnerable to the outside threats and challenges. Plus, with our attention facing inward, we will also miss outside opportunities. When we feel safe among the people with whom we work, the more likely we are to survive and thrive. That’s just the way it is.

6. E.D.S.O.

Two chemicals—endorphins and dopamine—are the reason that we are driven to hunt, gather and achieve. They make us feel good when we find something we’re looking for, build something we need or accomplish our goals. These are the chemicals of progress.

ENDORPHINS SERVE ONE purpose and one purpose only: to mask physical pain

Physical labor, exercise, and laughter releases endorphins

DOPAMINE IS THE reason for the good feeling we get when we find something we’re looking for or do something that needs to get done

Obviously the bigger the goal, the more effort it requires, the more dopamine we get. This is why it feels really good to work hard to accomplish something difficult, while doing something quick and easy may only give us a little hit if anything at all. In other words, it feels good to put in a lot of effort to accomplish something. There is no biological incentive to do nothing.

This is the reason we’re often told to write down our goals. “If you don’t write down your goals,” so the saying goes, “you won’t accomplish them.” There is some truth to this. Like seeing that fruit-filled tree in the distance, if we are able to physically see what we are setting out to accomplish or clearly imagine it, then we are indeed, thanks to the powers of dopamine, more likely to accomplish that goal.

This is why the best visions offer us something that, for all practical purposes, we will never actually reach, but for which we would gladly die trying. Each point in our journey is an opportunity to feel like we’re making progress toward something bigger than ourselves.

There to encourage pro-social behavior, serotonin and oxytocin help us form bonds of trust and friendship so that we will look out for each other

And these are the last two chemicals making out the name of the chapter, if you were wondering.

E =endorphins. D = dopamine. S = serotonin. O = oxytocin. E.D.S.O.

Serotonin is the feeling of pride. It is the feeling we get when we perceive that others like or respect us. It makes us feel strong and confident, like we can take on anything. And more than confidence boosting, it raises our status

That’s why when someone receives an award, the first people they thank are their parents, or their coach, their boss or God—whoever they felt offered them the support and protection they needed to accomplish what they accomplished. And when others offer us that protection and support, because of serotonin, we feel a sense of accountability to them.

The more we give of ourselves to see others succeed, the greater our value to the group and the more respect they offer us. The more respect and recognition we receive, the higher our status in the group and the more incentive we have to continue to give to the group. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Whether we are a boss, coach or parent, serotonin is working to encourage us to serve those for whom we are directly responsible. And if we are the employee, player or the one being looked after, the serotonin encourages us to work hard to make them proud.

Those who work hardest to help others succeed will be seen by the group as the leader or the “alpha” of the group. And being the alpha—the strong, supportive one of the group, the one willing to sacrifice time and energy so that others may gain—is a prerequisite for leadership.

OXYTOCIN IS MOST people’s favorite chemical. It’s the feeling of friendship, love or deep trust. It is the feeling we get when we’re in the company of our closest friends or trusted colleagues. It is the feeling we get when we do something nice for someone or someone does something nice for us. It is responsible for all the warm and fuzzies. This is the feeling we get when we all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” together. But oxytocin is not there just to make us feel good. It is vital to our survival instincts.

My favorite definition of love is giving someone the power to destroy us and trusting they won’t use it.

7. The Big C

That “gut feeling” that they, the gazelle and the rest of us get that something dangerous is lurking is caused by a chemical called cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for the stress and anxiety we experience when something goes bump in the night. It is the first level of our fight or flight response. Like a high-security alarm system that automatically calls the police, cortisol is designed to alert us to possible danger and prepare us to take extra measures to protect ourselves to raise our chances of survival.

For one thing, cortisol actually inhibits the release of oxytocin, the chemical responsible for empathy. This means that when there is only a weak Circle of Safety and people must invest time and energy to guard against politics and other dangers inside the company, it actually makes us even more selfish and less concerned about one another or the organization.

When you feel more stress and anxiety, you'll be less empathetic. You'll help each other less and less. I think that, once a company enters a 'stress cycle', it's in for a bad ride. Nobody will want to help one another; it'll be a selfish, zero sum game.

This is what work-life balance means. It has nothing to do with the hours we work or the stress we suffer. It has to do with where we feel safe. If we feel safe at home, but we don’t feel safe at work, then we will suffer what we perceive to be a work-life imbalance. If we have strong relationships at home and at work, if we feel like we belong, if we feel protected in both, then the powerful forces of a magical chemical like oxytocin can diminish the effect of stress and cortisol. With trust, we do things for each other, look out for each other and sacrifice for each other. All of which adds up to our sense of security inside a Circle of Safety. We have a feeling of comfort and confidence at work that reduces the overall stress we feel because we do not feel our well-being is threatened.

All that is required to accomplish this is for the leaders of a company to make the decision to do it. They have the power to create an environment in which people will naturally thrive and advance the good of the organization itself. Once the culture and values are clearly defined, it becomes the responsibility of all those who belong, whether in a formal position of leadership or not, to act like leaders, work to uphold the values and keep the Circle of Safety strong.

8. Why We Have Leaders

Our ability to work hard and muscle through hard labor is thanks to endorphins. Our ability to set goals, focus and get things done comes from the incentivizing powers of dopamine. It feels good to make progress, and so we do.
Serotonin is responsible for the pride we feel when those we care for achieve great things or when we make proud the people who take care of us. Serotonin helps to ensure we look out for those who follow us and do right by those who lead us. And the mysterious power of oxytocin helps us form bonds of love and trust. It helps us form relationships so strong we can make decisions with complete confidence that those who care about us will stand by our side. We know that if we need help or support the people who care about us will be there for us, no matter what. Oxytocin keeps us healthy. It opens our minds. It biologically makes us better problem solvers. Without oxytocin, we would only ever make short-term progress. Leaps of greatness require the combined problem-solving ability of people who trust each other.

When dopamine is the primary driver, we may achieve a lot but we will feel lonely and unfulfilled no matter how rich or powerful we get. We live lives of quick hits, in search of the next rush. Dopamine simply does not help us create things that are built to last. When we live in a hippie commune, the oxytocin gushing, but without any specific measureable goals or ambition, we can deny ourselves those intense feelings of accomplishment. No matter how loved we may feel, we may still feel like failures. The goal, again, is balance.
When the system is in balance, however, we seem to gain almost supernatural ability. Courage, inspiration, foresight, creativity and empathy, to name a few. When those things all come to bear, the results and the feelings that go with them are simply remarkable.

A 2010 study by three psychology scientists—Francesca Gino of Chapel Hill, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke—showed that people who wear phony couture clothing actually don’t feel the same burst of pride or status as those who wear the real thing. Faking it, it turns out, makes us feel phony, as if we are cheating. Status is biological, we have to earn it to feel it. The same study also concluded that those who attempted to cheat their biology were actually more inclined to cheat in other aspects of their lives as well.

The rank of office is not what makes someone a leader. Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank. There are people with authority who are not leaders and there are people at the bottom rungs of an organization who most certainly are leaders. It’s okay for leaders to enjoy all the perks afforded to them. However, they must be willing to give up those perks when it matters.

Leaders are the ones willing to look out for those to the left of them and those to the right of them. They are often willing to sacrifice their own comfort for ours, even when they disagree with us. Trust is not simply a matter of shared opinions. Trust is a biological reaction to the belief that someone has our well-being at heart. Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last.

What makes a good leader is that they eschew the spotlight in favor of spending time and energy to do what they need to do to support and protect their people. And when we feel the Circle of Safety around us, we offer our blood and sweat and tears and do everything we can to see our leader’s vision come to life. The only thing our leaders ever need to do is remember whom they serve and it will be our honor and pleasure to serve them back.

“This is the most important lesson I can impart to all of you,” he offered. “All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which eventually you will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you. Because you only ever deserved a Styrofoam cup.”

9. The Courage to Do the Right Thing

The responsibility of leaders is to teach their people the rules, train them to gain competency and build their confidence. At that point, leadership must step back and trust that their people know what they are doing and will do what needs to be done. In weak organizations, without oversight, too many people will break the rules for personal gain. That’s what makes the organizations weak. In strong organizations, people will break the rules because it is the right thing to do for others.

10. Snowmobile in the Desert

Nothing of real value on this earth was built by one person without the help of others. There are few accomplishments, companies or technologies that were built by one person without the help or support of anyone else. It is clear that the more others want to help us, the more we can achieve.

Trust is like lubrication. It reduces friction and creates conditions much more conducive to performance.

It’s not how smart the people in the organization are; it’s how well they work together that is the true indicator of future success or the ability to manage through struggle.

15. Managing the Abstraction

When a leader is able to personally know everyone in the group, the responsibility for their care becomes personal. The leader starts to see those for whom they are responsible as if they were their own family. Likewise, those in the group start to express ownership of their leader. In a Marine platoon of about forty people, for example, they will often refer to the officer as “our” lieutenant. Whereas the more distant and less seen senior officer is simply “the” colonel. When this sense of mutual ownership between leader and those being led starts to break down, when informality is replaced by formality, it is a sure sign the group may be getting too big to lead effectively.

Professor Dunbar figured out that people simply cannot maintain more than about 150 close relationships. “Putting it another way,” he likes to say, “it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

Professor Grant arranged for students who received the scholarships to come to the office and spend five minutes describing to fund-raisers how the scholarship they received changed their lives. The students told them how much they appreciated the hard work of the fund-raising department. Even though the people impacted by the work of the fund-raisers were only there for a short time, the results were astounding. In the following month, the fund-raisers increased their average weekly revenue by more than 400 percent. In a separate similar study, callers showed an average increase of 142 percent in the amount of time they spent on the phone and a 171 percent increase in the amount of funds they raised.

The above quote is connected to the bolded text below. The above is an example of it in action.

As social animals, it is imperative for us to see the actual, tangible impact of our time and effort for our work to have meaning and for us to be motivated to do it even better. The logic seems to follow Milgram’s findings, except in this case, it’s positive. When we are able to physically see the positive impact of the decisions we make or the work we do, not only do we feel that our work was worth it, but it also inspires us to work harder and do more.

Money is an abstraction of tangible resources or human effort. It is a promissory note for future goods or services. Unlike the time and effort that people spend on something, it is what money represents that gives it its value. And as an abstraction, it has no “real” value to our primitive brains, which judge the real value of food and shelter or the behavior of others against the level of protection or safety they can offer us. Someone who gives us a lot of money, as our brains would interpret their behavior, is not necessarily as valuable to our protection as someone willing to commit their time and energy to us.

And it’s not just time. The energy we give also matters. If a parent goes to watch their kid’s soccer game but only looks up from their mobile device when there is cheering, they may have given their time, but they haven’t given their energy. The kid will look over to see their parent’s head down most of the game, busy texting or e-mailing the office or something. Regardless of the intentions of that parent, without giving their attention, the time is basically wasted for both parent and child. The same is true in our offices when we talk to someone while reading our e-mails or sit in a meeting with one eye on our phone. We may be hearing all that is said, but the person speaking will not feel we are listening, and an opportunity to build trust—or be seen as a leader who cares—is squandered.


Every culture has its own history, traditions, languages and symbols. When we identify with a culture, we articulate our belonging to that group and align ourselves with a shared set of values and beliefs. We may define ourselves, in part, by the culture of our country of citizenship—for example, I am an American—or by the culture of an organization—such as, I am a Marine. This doesn’t mean we think about our cultural identity on a daily basis. But when we are away from the group or if our tribe is threatened from the outside, it becomes more important. It can even become our primary focus. Remember how the country came together as one after the events of September 11?

As Goethe, the great nineteenth-century thinker, reportedly summed up, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”

A company of strong character will have a culture that promotes treating all people well, not just the ones who pay them or earn them money in the moment. In a culture of strong character, the people inside the company will feel protected by their leaders and feel that their colleagues have their backs. In a culture of weak character, the people will feel that any protection they have comes primarily from their own ability to manage the politics, promote their own successes and watch their own backs (though some are lucky enough to have a colleague or two to help). Just as our character defines our value to our friends, so too does the culture of a company define its value to those who know it. Performance can go up and down; the strength of a culture is the only thing we can truly rely on.

18. Leadership Lesson 2: So Goes the Leader, so Goes the Culture

The more attention a leader focuses on their own wealth or power, they stop acting like a leader and start taking on more of the attributes of a tyrant. Mark Bowden wrote a remarkable piece about Saddam Hussein in the Atlantic Monthly. In it he describes how the tyrant leader “exists only to preserve his wealth and power.” And this is the problem. “Power,” as Bowden further explains, “gradually shuts the tyrant off from the world.” And, as we already know, when distance is created, abstraction settles in and soon after that comes the paranoia. The tyrant sees the world against them, which only compels them to shut out even more people. They set up more and more rigid controls around their inner circle. And as their isolation increases, the organization suffers.

One can’t help but think again about the companies that suffer thanks to the decisions of a few selfishly minded people within their organizations. Whether these individuals act unethically, commit a crime or simply work counter to the interests of the organization, neither they nor their leaders seem to take responsibility. Instead they point fingers. Republicans blame Democrats and Democrats blame Republicans when things don’t get done. Mortgage companies blamed the banks and banks blamed the mortgage companies for the 2008 financial meltdown. Let us be grateful none of them are responsible for the care of nuclear-powered submarines.

Captain Marquet came to understand that the role of the leader is not to bark commands and be completely accountable for the success or failure of the mission. It is a leader’s job instead to take responsibility for the success of each member of his crew. It is the leader’s job to ensure that they are well trained and feel confident to perform their duties. To give them responsibility and hold them accountable to advance the mission. If the captain provides direction and protection, the crew will do what needs to be done to advance the mission. In his book, Turn the Ship Around!, Captain Marquet goes through all the specific steps he took—that any organization can take—to develop an environment in which those who know more, the people who are actually doing the work, are empowered to make decisions.

And that’s what the best leaders do. They share what they know, ask knowledgeable people for help performing their duties and make introductions to create new relationships within their networks. Poor leaders hoard these things, falsely believing it is their intelligence, rank or relationships that make them valuable. It is not. In an organization with a strong Circle of Safety, not only is the leader willing to share knowledge, but so too is everyone else. Again, the leader sets the tone.

“The goal of a leader is to give no orders,” Captain Marquet explains. “Leaders are to provide direction and intent and allow others to figure out what to do and how to get there.” And this is the challenge most organizations face. “We train people to comply, not to think,” Captain Marquet goes on. If people only comply, we can’t expect people to take responsibility for their actions. The chain of command is for orders, not information. Responsibility is not doing as we are told, that’s obedience. Responsibility is doing what is right.

19. Leadership Lesson 3: Integrity Matters

The same is true in every organization, even ones in which the decisions are not a matter of life and death. When we suspect the leaders of a company are saying things to make themselves or the company look better than they are or to avoid humiliation or accountability, our trust in them falters. It is a natural response. Our brain interprets the information we receive with our survival in mind. If we suspect our leaders are bending the truth to favor their own interests, then our subconscious mind prefers we don’t climb into a foxhole with them.

We need to know that the information we are given by others and especially our leaders, good or bad, is the truth. We need to know that when someone says something, they mean it. If we doubt their integrity, then we cannot trust them with our lives or the lives of those we love. If we doubt someone’s integrity, we would hesitate before jumping into a foxhole with them. The integrity of those in our community is, as our brain perceives it, a matter of life and death.

Integrity is not about being honest when we agree with each other; it is also about being honest when we disagree or, even more important, when we make mistakes or missteps. Again, our need to build trusting relationships, as our social brain sees things, is a matter of life and death, or in the case of our modern Western lives, a matter of feeling safe, secure and protected versus feeling isolated and vulnerable. We need people to admit when they falter and not try to hide it or spin the story in an attempt to protect their image. Any attempt at spin is self-serving, and such a selfish motivation can do damage to our group should danger present itself. This is not a complex idea.

I admire leaders who believe in the value of culture. I respect leaders who put people first. And I have deep loyalty to those who believe integrity is the bedrock of an organization. These beliefs are the makings of a very strong culture, one in which the people are committed to one another and to the organization.

Building trust requires nothing more than telling the truth.

As the Zen Buddhist saying goes, how you do anything is how you do everything.

21. Leadership Lesson 5: Lead the People, Not the Numbers

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras make the case in their book, Built to Last, that when the genius at the top leaves, they take all their expertise and genius with them. In contrast, when a leader has the humility to distribute power across the organization, the strength of the company becomes less dependent on one person and is thus better able to survive. In this model, instead of trying to command-and-control everything, the leaders devote all their energy to training, building and protecting their people—to managing the Circle of Safety—so that the people can command and control any situation themselves. That’s the best way to protect the legacy of the leader and extend the success of the company for many years after the leader departs.

THE PERFORMANCE OF a company is closely tied to the personality and values of the person at the top. And the personality and values of the person at the top set the tone of the culture

When people feel good about working at the company they will work harder for the company . . . in that order.

Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.

22. At the Center of All Our Problems Is Us

Leadership is about taking responsibility for lives and not numbers. Managers look after our numbers and our results and leaders look after us. All managers of metrics have an opportunity to become leaders of people. Just as every doctor in our country learned the importance of sterilizing their instruments, so too must every leader of every organization do the little things necessary to protect their people. But first, they have to admit they are at the root of the problem.

24. The Abstract Generation

The dopamine drive for instant gratification, at best, means we, as individuals, keep “giving” to various causes without ever feeling any sense of belonging or lasting fulfillment. At worst, however, feelings of loneliness and isolation can lead to dangerous antisocial behavior.

26. Shared Struggle

If the leaders of organizations give their people something to believe in, if they offer their people a challenge that outsizes their resources but not their intellect, the people will give everything they’ve got to solve the problem. And in the process, not only will they invent and advance the company, they may even change an industry or the world in the process (just as an early version of Microsoft did). But if the resources are vastly greater than the problem before us, then the abundance works against us.
Though it may take small steps to make a big leap, it is the vision of the big leap and not the action of the small steps that inspires us. And only after we have committed ourselves to that vision can we look back at our lives and say to ourselves that the work we did mattered.

It is not when things come easily that we appreciate them, but when we have to work hard for them or when they are hard to get that those things have greater value to us. Be it a diamond deep in the ground, career success or a relationship, it is the struggle it takes to make it work that helps give that thing its value.

It is not the work we remember with fondness, but the camaraderie, how the group came together to get things done.

Human beings have thrived for fifty thousand years not because we are driven to serve ourselves, but because we are inspired to serve others.

Enjoy my book notes? Join the newsletter

I'll send you an email when I release new notes. No spam, ever.