Real Leaders

Should Leaders Eat Last?

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

I’m so frustrated. I recently watched a video of a new Simon Sinek speech based on his book Why Leaders Eat Last. I like both Sinek’s speaking and writing. It’s both muscular and gentle. He is a new voice for a timeless message. I think we all know the message. Greek philosophers were talking about the responsibility that leaders have to their followers 5,000 years ago. I boil down Simon’s message into two main ideas.

First, Great enterprises are purpose driven.

And second, that great leaders create trust with their employees by caring about them as individuals not just workers. The idea is if you put your people first, if you serve them, they will perform amazing acts of greatness. This is really not debatable. Leaders who fight for the well-being of their followers are legendary. Alexander the Great fought furiously alongside his soldiers and was among the first to tend to his wounded ones when battles were over.

George Washington often rode his huge white stallion between the front lines with his ragged troops and the well trained British as if to defy defeat. He was also unafraid to suffer with his men through the winter at Valley Forge. And it was Washington’s proven advocacy of common soldiers that kept our new nation from disintegrating into warring colonies after our independence was won.

As Sinek points out, great leaders sacrifice themselves to help their followers gain, yet today’s’ business leaders seek to gain by demanding their employees sacrifice themselves. So here’s why I am frustrated. Leaders have been told they should “eat last” for as long as I’ve been involved in leadership development. Yet they don’t. Not at all.

I know this because during the last recession I conducted a research project with students from the University of California at San Diego. We developed a screen to identify large companies that made strategic decisions consistent with their stated values or purpose and conducted operations according to sustainability standards. We crossed referenced that with lists of companies that we identified as great places to work for employees.

The were 21 companies out of 1,000 that passed that screen.

That’s 2.1%. Over the last four decades eloquent and compelling Thought Leaders of business leadership have said the same things. When I started out with Stephen Covey in the early 1980s teaching leaders the power of moral mission statements we inspired millions on a personal level but had little impact on the way businesses were actually led. Instead, being #1 or #2 and rising earnings per share became the only measure of greatness. As far leaders eating last, that was covered eloquently. At that time Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership was found on almost every executive’s desk. Ken Blanchard wrote the employee-centric One Minute Manager.

The exceptionally loud voice of Tom Peters told us that excellent companies have people-centered work cultures. Then Jim Collins wrote both Built to Last and Good to Great providing ample research that purpose-driven companies and humble determined leaders were the ingredients to enduring enterprises. And so what have we got today? Sure, there are new clubs being formed around Conscious Capitalism which is the latest way of saying that business ought to be focusing on creating the greatest value using the fewest resources and doing the least harm possible.

And while it’s true that there are a few companies whose leaders are sincerely committed to making a positive difference in the lives of their customers and employees, take it from me as someone who has walked the halls of many major corporations over the last 35 years as a leadership consultant.

There are very, very few of them who are willing the put those values first.

It’s true. I have been very fortunate to work with several great leaders who actually made business decisions consistently aligned with their personal values. However, I have to report that too often leaders do whatever they can get away with, certainly if it’s legal, to make more money. But for most business leaders the idea that the fundamental purpose of enterprise is to increase the quality of life of every stakeholder… customer, employee, vendor, community and shareholder is just not there. At least not in the strategic or tactical way. Instead, business leaders continue to be obsessed about making the most money with the fewest employees. In fact, that mindset has a dignified name. It’s called productivity. And in the name of productivity and profitability all kinds of really bad shenanigans are committed and justified because after all… it’s just business.

So help me out.

I would really like to get your best ideas as to why… after decades and decades of compelling and articulate Business Thought Leaders presenting compelling cases for purpose driven, employee engaged, moral enterprise as being the best way to create an enduring great business…so few leaders give a damn.

Is it that business just attracts amoral, competitive, self-centered leaders?

I really don’t think so. In all my consulting I have rarely met a leader who doesn’t actually have a strong desire to make a positive difference. It’s just that most often I’ve seen that same leader succumb to making expedient compromises that exploit their employees or push lower quality products on naive consumers. These decisions are always justified by some calculated business logic that somehow makes it okay.

Some real life examples:

I’ve worked with several highly principled CEOs of large non-profit health systems that employ analysts who are constantly looking for ways to charge patients $1.00 for one aspirin. Or they bill $50,000 for a procedure for someone without insurance that they charge $25,000 for the same procedure for someone whose insurance company has negotiated a lower rate. These “non-profit” healthcare CEOs make millions in salary and think nothing of bankrupting the working un-insured who suffer an accident or get a brain tumor.

And here’s the kicker. These are great individuals. Honest and kind personally, and they sleep fine. Yet they cause immense avoidable suffering. It seems OK because it’s the standard operating procedure in healthcare. Whatever. I’ve spent a day with the immensely popular CEO of YUM brands. They bring you the wonderful “food” of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut. Their product causes diabetes, which now costs us more than smoking in public health care cost.

They design their food to have “bliss points” to deliver just the right amount of salt, sugar and fat to addict our brains as much as nicotine does. They also target high frequency users; low income, minorities, single moms with kids, and working classes in emerging countries. Their business model is dependent on unhealthy over eating. They also seek to keep their wages and benefits as low as possible. And I want to tell you the CEO is a simply a great guy. Smart, personable and caring, especially to his senior executives. I did some training for Bain Capital.

Now these leaders believe they are making the economy work… real patriots. Yet they still really think and act like Richard Gere in the movie Pretty Woman. These very smart, mostly very nice private equity pros will make virtually any promise to the owner of a company they “invest” in, but very often they act like smug little pirates planning their exit strategy that has no regard for the owners, the employees and often the customers.

And once again these are great guys who love their kids. They probably even like Simon Sinek. Oh and how about “valuing your employees like a companies’ most valuable asset.” How many times have we heard that whopper? During my working career I have seen leaders only get rewarded for big layoffs of bright hardworking people. I briefly worked with the CEO of a highly regarded pharmaceutical firm who had spent three years working his medical research staff to the bone to develop a brilliant new medicine.

It was about to be approved so he was laying off hundreds of these exhausted, dedicated employees because he had not designed his research pipeline to absorb them. Too bad. He wanted me to figure how to raise morale. Even the best companies have become places where leaders consistently eat first. The new CEO of IBM is zapping 15,000 ‘highly valued’ employees. Cisco has had waves of layoffs of smart people.

Meg Whitman was cheered for dumping 25,000 excess professionals. Most of these leaders will earn millions for firing smart people because they can’t think of anything productive for them to do. Does that sound like “eating last?” I could go on… these are not small or isolated cases.

So why is business leadership in general so unable to sustain interest in creating genuine value for humanity?

Why are they hell-bent on overworking their employees to the point of exhaustion while they continue to downsize? Is it that the business pressures put on leaders for financial results is just so overwhelming that it crushes their internal sources of inspiration? Is it because both business education and our business press praise leaders who are financially successful but do little to teach or promote values based business models? Is it because we don’t have enough women in senior leadership positions?

(I’m not being silly about this. Micro finance has shown that women are community builders. They reinvest their profits in education for their children and public works projects…things that will make the future better. Successful male micro-entrepreneurs on the other hand pretty much spend their profits on improving their status, paying for prostitutes and getting drunk. That’s why so few micro finance organizations loan money to men.)

What is it about business that drains smart, capable and so many fundamentally good people of moral ambition?

And one more thing. Small business leaders often seem the most uninspired. I have found the thinking that business should be conducted as a game whose only rules are “what can I get away with” is even more pronounced among businesses with revenue between $5 million and $100 million.  Often the leaders of these medium-sized enterprises have little empathy for their front-line employees and worker safety.

Their most common expression is that their success is all due to their own genius and that low wage workers get what they deserve. Yet again, on a personal level these CEO-entrepreneurs are caring and generous to their friends and family. My questions about what turns good people into bad business leaders is important to me. I fundamentally believe that creating a world of sustainable abundance for the 9 billion people that are soon going to live on our planet is the greatest economic opportunity in history.

I also believe that the innovation and discipline that arise from smart business can be the greatest single force for positive change in the world.

What I don’t believe is that creating sustainable abundance will happen by everybody acting in their extreme self-interest because some invisible hand will make it turn out all right. I don’t believe it because it simply isn’t true. It never has been. That’s the fairy tale of narcissists. Let me clear I am not a socialist. But neither do I respect the atheistic drivel of Ayn Rand.

Instead I believe that our future will largely be created by the collective wisdom of the leaders of business and our major institutions around the world.

Somehow, there must a new way of engaging business leaders with the practical skills as well as the inspiration to create, as Buckminster Fuller said, “a world that works for everyone.” So please don’t leave me hanging…

What do you think is in the way? Why has nothing really worked to change the mindset of leaders? And what might work?


More like this

Most Recent Articles