Leaders Eat Last

🔖How would I describe this book in 1 sentence?

A biology of leadership and successful human cooperation.

🗺️What was the role of this book in my journey?

I can say this book came into my hands right on time. Initially, I purchased it as a gift to my friend but happen to read it faster. At that period, I had been in the lead of the OB Trading organization and sometimes I found it difficult to establish and cultivate an effective work environment in the development team. The book has provided one of the missing pieces.

I was inspired by Ted Talks and the ideas of Simon Sinek on different subjects which later was one of the factors that lead me to read

. The concepts of Leaders Eat Last appeared extremely relevant to me at the time, and I wanted to learn more about how to lead the organizations, that's why I decided to start with this book.

💡Key Insights

  1. A company’s biggest strength doesn’t lie in its products/services. It always lies in its people—in their ability to cooperate closely and rally behind the organization, especially during a crisis.
  2. Human beings have thrived as a species because of our ability to create, invent, plan, and organize ourselves in complex ways
  3. Our need for hierarchy and leadership is rooted in our biology.
  4. There are 4 chemicals (hormones) that are the main drivers of our behavior and decision-making. The hormone dopamine rewards us with happy excitement whenever we complete a task. Serotonin and oxytocin affect our social lives by helping us form relationships with other people. There are endorphins, which disguise exhaustion and pain as physical pleasure
  5. Endorphins are the reason why we leave the gym aglow after a hard day of training and just can’t wait to go back for more. Ten thousand years ago, endorphins would have helped a village’s hunters continue the hunt and bring back meat to their hungry families despite their physical exhaustion
  6. In hunter-gatherer societies, for example, a rush of endorphins allowed hunters to push for miles and miles in order to secure meat for the community, which in turn earned them the privileges of higher status. Weaker individuals, who for one reason or another couldn’t participate in the hunt, had to accept less prestigious roles, such as gathering fruits
  7. This distinction between the “strong” and the “weak” was the first step on the path towards social hierarchy. Yet, while certainly being responsible for these class distinctions, hormones also add cohesion to these hierarchical structures by giving the weaker individuals a serotonin- or oxytocin-based warm feeling towards one another as well as the leader, rather than destructive stings of jealousy
  8. A feeling of safety is our main engine of progress and must be ensured by the group and its leader.
  9. Our brains have evolved to prioritize feeling safe, which is why we now do strange things like stay in jobs we hate simply because they make us feel secure
  10. This circle of safety describes a group of people who share common values and beliefs, and strive to protect one another from threats. Within this circle, members can trust each other and thus pool their resources in order to progress. But it is the leader who determines just how far the circle extends
  11. The whole purpose of maintaining the circle of safety is so that we can invest all our time and energy to guard against the dangers outside. It’s the same reason we lock our doors at night
  12. Today, the leader decides a company’s culture and values, and thus their employees’ mentality.
  13. Successfully running a company has as much to do with creating the culture as it does with managing finances
  14. A company is more than merely the sum of its buildings, investors and workforce. It also embodies a culture that dictates how employees approach various problems, treat customers, and prioritize values. And because leaders, such as CEOs, determine how the company is run, they also craft its culture
  15. AUTONOMY MATTERS. Lack of control at work = stress + emotional strain. One in three employees considered leaving their jobs in 2010-2011 (according reports from consultancy firm Mercer, LLC). This tells us two things:
    1. That there are A LOT of people that want to quit their jobs, and/or
    2. People feel like they’ve got no other option but to stay put (due to money, family, and insecurities about being unable to find other work)
  16. Our responsibility comes from our proximity to and empathy for others, without which we can cause great harm.
  17. Being in a leadership role doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a force of good. When the bond between the leaders and the team is somehow severed, the consequences can be horrific. In essence, this is because responsibility is actually about caring for other people; when we’re removed from the people for whom we are responsible, we’re less cautious about the damage we cause
  18. What’s amongst one of the biggest habits you can develop in order to cultivate your Circle of Safety? EMPATHY. Empathy is a crucial commodity these days, and we need leaders like Johnny Bravo in our corporations and companies; in our businesses and organizations… To truly lead. Because when people know that their leaders are providing protection from above, they can work hard on the ground, without being concerned about the dangers of the outside. (Empathy = the ability to recognize or share the feelings of another.)
  19. Our feeling of responsibility comes from our empathy, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Without empathy, we risk becoming emotionally removed from decisions that affect others. And if we add physical distance to the mix, it leads to abstraction, where the consequences of our actions seem less real than they otherwise would
  20. When abstraction occurs, we begin to prioritize our interests over other people’s, which can lead us to actively make decisions at others’ expense
  21. Bad leadership has contributed to modern-day selfishness and the dehumanization of others.
  22. In 1981, Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers, that went on strike demanding better payment. It was a fatal mistake that became a precedent of dehumanization of workers. He prioritized profits over the employees’ well-being. Once it was done, it became a new norm among the industries which resulted in mass layoffs when thousands of companies prioritized profitability over their people.
  23. Because businesses operate on such an enormous scale, it’s easier to think of people as abstractions, such as consumers, shareholders or expenses. We’re therefore more likely to dehumanize others, i.e., to see them as tools that fulfill a specific purpose, than we are to treat them as living, breathing people with their own wants and needs
  24. Modern society has become addicted to better and faster performance.
  25. In order to prevent ourselves from becoming addicted to little bursts of dopamine received from pressing "Like" on social media, we need to balance them out with a serotonin- and oxytocin-driven sacrifice, i.e., actually going somewhere to volunteer or building relationships with real people
  26. Integrity and the ability to bond with others are essential for leadership.
  27. We need to be able to trust our leaders, which means they must have integrity. We all know that leaders are only human, and we, therefore, don’t expect them to be perfect. What we do expect, however, is that they’re honest and forthcoming about their mistakes and take responsibility for them
  28. The way the lack of bonding can affect leadership we can see in the example of the US Congress. Until the 1990s, most congressmen and -women lived in Washington and thus communicated daily, which resulted in laws built upon close cooperation. Today, however, most members of Congress live elsewhere and fly to Washington for a few days a week. The result? Some of the lowest approval ratings in congressional history.
  29. Being a leader means putting others ahead of yourself in order to fulfill a vision.
  30. A leader forges a vision for the future that the entire group feels inspired to fulfill. Although every group member has individual goals, the group as a whole needs purpose in order to remain cohesive, and that purpose comes from the leader’s vision
  31. Leaders Eat Last - this principle takes on a quite literal form in the Marine Corps, where the most senior members always receive their meal last. This is neither an agreement nor an order, but a statement: leaders eat last. Only once they are able to put their own needs last can they say that they’ve earned their status as leaders
  32. Fundamentally, leaders must earn others’ respect and loyalty by making the most sacrifices and being willing to eat last. They must give trust to earn trust.
  33. When the environment at work is one of encouragement, and one that meets the basic human needs to live, to learn, to feel valued and significant, we do more than just survive — we thrive. We soar higher than expected. It’s the leadership’s responsibility to set up the right conditions/environment for this to happen. We do not have the power to “change people”. We must enhance the environment. “Change” —whether good or bad — is the result of environment. And if we want to see “change” — we need to focus less on ourselves and more on others/“the team”/organization/etc
  34. Some believe we should always put others first—that if we don’t look out for the group, the group won’t look out for us. Others believe we should always put ourselves first and that if we don’t take care of ourselves first, then we would be of no use to anyone else. The fact is, both are true
  35. Good leadership is like exercise. We do not see any improvement to our bodies with day-to-day comparisons. In fact, if we only compare the way our bodies look on a given day to how they looked the previous day, we would think our efforts had been wasted. It’s only when we compare pictures of ourselves over a period of weeks or months that we can see a stark difference. The impact of leadership is best judged over time

🦅Key Principles

  1. Constantly practice and grow a feeling of empathy
  2. Treat your employees like they are your family - with dignity and respect
  3. Focus on developing great company culture
  4. Set a clear vision for each endeavor
  5. Ensure and endure a "Safety Circle" within the organization. This will allow people to take more risks, go extra miles, and be more dedicated to the company mission
  6. Give constructive critical advice in a way that is not hurtful to people but in a way that they feel cared for. This will help you create a culture, where also leaders themselves get honest feedback.
  7. To increase the likelihood of success of an ambitious project, gather the team in the same physical place and dedicate all your attention to it


The 4 Chemicals (E.D.S.O.)

Each of us is an individual and a part of social groups. We make daily decisions that require us to weigh our self-interests against group interests. This dilemma also happens in our bodies via 4 key chemicals:

  • Endorphins and dopamine drive us to satisfy our personal needs, e.g. to find food/shelter, develop solutions and persevere through problems. They help us to get things done so we can survive.
  • Serotonin and oxytocin encourage us to work together with others. They build feelings of trust, camaraderie and loyalty, strengthen our social bonds and increase our inclination to cooperate with others to achieve what we can’t on our own.
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Get to know the four “happy” chemicals in your brain + body

  • Endorphin: the pain-masking chemical
  • Dopamine: the goal achieving chemical
  • Serotonin: the leadership chemical
  • Oxytocin: the chemical of love


Endorphins + Dopamine are the chemicals of progress, as they make us feel good when we achieve goals and accomplish various things. So what’s the problem? Most leaders operate with fear-based tactics like

the old “command + control” model of management — which has not only been proven NOT to work, but has also been shown to spike our egos and get dopamine surging through our bodies. This often making US feel good at the expense of others. And that’s bad. Really bad. It’s so bad that it usually bites us in the butt… What’s worse, Endorphins + Dopamine are highly addictive.

Endorphin [The Runner's High]

Ever hear of a “runner’s high”? That’s just endorphin surging through your body. It’s there to mask the pain we’re putting our bodies through when we beat up our muscles in the gym, or run for long periods of time. Endorphin was useful back in the paleolithic era when hunters would go all day long in the grueling heat or freezing cold, hunting for food… Endorphin would kick in at just the right time to mask the pain and make us feel good enough to get our bodies to keep moving, and eventually, to capture the prey… It’s likely that hunter-gathers became addicted to hunting, much like some of us become addicted to weight-lifting.

Dopamine [The Goal-Achieving Chemical]

Dopamine is the dangerous chemical — but only when abused. Cocaine, nicotine and alcohol all send dopamine surging through your system.. The reason we get addicted to this stuff is because it provides near-instant gratification/pleasure — which, again, is just dopamine making you feel good. You know what else sends dopamine surging through your system?

A sense of completion [that extra burst of feel-good vibes that arise when we're approaching the finish line].

Achieving Goals.Completing Tasks.Getting things done...The gratification of crossing off that jar of almond butter on your grocery list.

That awesome feeling you get when you click that little box and see the check-sign show up on your favorite productivity app.

Dopamine is that compelling force that makes you feel like you absolutely NEED to reply to that little buzz, bing, or flash coming from your phone, notifying you of that text you just got from Lucy ... and regardless of how many miles over the speed limit you might be driving in -- by golly you'll nudge your thumb towards that little green icon marked 'messages' and reply to that text you just got from Lucy, regardless of much of a drunk it makes you look like on the road, because you just feel uneasy if you don't. This reaction is the result of your good friend dopamine surging through your body in anticipation of achieving some task; which, in this case happens to be reading and replying to that text... even if you have to put yourself at risk of getting into an accident to do it.

Dopamine isn't always rational.

Dopamine was put into place by Mother Nature to incentivize us to move forward with what we’ve committed ourselves to doing by giving us little bursts or “hits” of the dopamine chemical whenever we take a small step towards achieving a desired outcome of some sort.

The problem though, is that even the “good” things about dopamine can get addictive.

For example, consider your to-do list...

Do you add obviously easy tasks to the list just to make it seem like you're getting stuff done? I know I do.

I remember going grocery shopping recently with a list of items to get, and as I was strolling down the aisles picking up my goodies, I saw almond butter on the shelf and remembered that I'd actually forgotten to add it to my grocery list... no problem. I grabbed it and put it in my basket -- and then I wrote 'almond butter' down on my grocery list and crossed it out.

Why'd I do that? Because I've become addicted to the short burst of dopamine that results from checking tasks off of my to-do list - regardless of whether it actually makes any logical sense for me to do so... that's dopamine.


Serotonin + Oxytocin are the chemicals of contribution, trust + belonging. When we include these two chemicals in our 4-way cocktail, the result is a healthy (and necessary) synergy that results in more cooperation and more collaboration… but those are just poo-poo office words to some people. “What about the tangibles”, they say. Well, if you’re looking for measurable results and “tangibles” that show up in the “numbers” — you’ve got to STEP AWAY from the spreadsheets and the computer screen; you’ve got to get out of the board room, you’ve got to do more than blast off a memo here and a memo there — you’ve got to show em’ that you care and show em’ that you’re there. You’ve got to be there not as a cheerleader for the good times, but as a leader that gives a damn - regardless of the peaks and valleys of the economy.


Sinek tells a great story about a company named Barry-Wehmiller, and their losing battle against a series of economic blows that sent the company tumbling into a financial crisis they just couldn't shake.

Although they were advised to begin instituting massive layoffs to keep their business above ground and help them weather the economic storm - they kept pushing back and refusing to sacrifice their employees in hopes that they could come up with something - anything - that could help them survive this financial hardship and continue to provide the members of Barry-Wehmiler with the job-security they deserved.

Unfortunately enough, the day eventually came when they were left with no other choice but to start laying people off..

Until someone came up with a better idea....

{Side note: do you notice how lay-offs were an absolute last resort with this particular company, as opposed to a quick-fix resolution that CEOs of today jump at without a flinch or hint of hesitation?}

The CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, Bob Champan, decided that he wouldn't be going down the same road most of his peers - both past and present - usually tend to go down when face with similar situations, which is a massive onslaught of lay-offs in the name of "balancing the books"... This particular CEO however, cared about his people and he decided to demonstrate that by coming up with an idea that would avoid lay-offs -- and even bring the organization closer together in the process.

Want to know what he did? He instituted a ‘furlough’.

This means that every employee (CEO included) was required to take four unpaid weeks off from work per year in order to balance the inevitable financial blows that threaten the survival of any thriving business or company. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Everyone takes four weeks of unpaid vacation time and the company becomes stable again. Boom.

After reading about this furlough idea, I couldn't help but think "Wow. Duh. Why haven't more of us thought of that idea?"

And then I realized why it's so important for leaders at every level to read this book -- Leaders Eat Last is more than just a catchy title filled with inspiring stories -- it's a testament to the few true leaders in the business world today, and a blueprint filled example after example of how these principles of conscious, caring leadership can be cultivated and applied in the modern businesses of today.

Because of leaders like Bob Chapman, who refused to let his people go when his company hit hard times, the people in the company came together as a unified team to see to it that the organization would make it through the tough times and prosper once again.

And it all began with one person: the leader.

Circles of Safety

Traditionally, our family provides a Circle of Safety where we feel safe and supported. Inside the circle, we have a healthy balance of E.D.S.O. and low Cortisol levels. In organizations, Circles of Safety provide people with a sense of belonging and security. People feel valued and cared for, and trust that others will act in their interests. This facilitates communication, cooperation, problem-solving and innovation, allowing people to direct their attention to external threats and opportunities. By contrast, when people feel threatened by internal politics and infighting, they turn their attention inward to focus on self-preservation, making the group more vulnerable as a whole.

Hiring someone should be like adding a new member to your family. You must set stringent standards for the type of people you’ll accept. Once they’re a part of the family, you don’t simply kick them out when the going gets tough. You must give loyalty to earn loyalty. The 4 chemicals are Nature’s way to help us survive, by balancing our personal drive and social needs.


Our younger generation (Gen Y) grew up with abstraction, abundance and a bias toward individualism. They’re used to relying on social media, online support groups and drugs to cope with problems.  Many of them don’t even know how to build the deep, trusting human connections needed for their survival and well-being. People are feeling increasingly isolated; suicide rates in America have risen so sharply that more people are now dying of suicides than car accidents.

More than ever, we need leaders to create Circles of Safety and positive, fulfilling work environments


Sinek solidifies his argument that leading for long-term is better than leading for the short-term by comparing two such leaders of two large organizations — both of which you’ve probably heard of:

  • The short-term leader: Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric
  • The long-term leader: Jeff Sinegal, former CEO of Costco

Sinek compares GE vs Costco by measuring profits via the rise and fall of their stocks, and then connecting those ebbs and flows to the decisions made by the leadership.

Here’s what he found:

GE / Jack Welch / Short-term leadership:

  • Profits at GE were like a roller coaster ride due to irrational decision making without regard for long-term implication
  • Every year Jack would fire the bottom 10% of his managers at GE to balance the books
  • GE did indeed make profit, but it was more like rolling the dice and gambling with lives of employees for selfish gain — this is not strategy, this is a man on high on dopamine

Costco / Jeff Sinegal / Long-term leadership:

  • While Welch was striking fear into the hearts of his managers, Jeff Sinegal was concerned about giving his employees a raise — at a time when the US was in an economic crisis… Sinegal would say that they should be helping the employees in bad times, not letting them go.
  • Costco’s stock was (and still is) stable and predictable — nothing exciting about it, just great, clean, predictable progress, performance and profit… when you’re the 2nd largest retailer in the country, predictability is better than spontaneity.