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Review: Leaders Eat Last – Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t by Simon Sinek

Leaders eat lastThis review first ran in The Hamilton Spectator Feb. 18.

Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t

By Simon Sinek

Portfolio / Penguin


If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Good words to live by unless you’re the boss.

Gallup did a poll in 2013 that looked at employee engagement.

If you constantly criticize your employees, 22 per cent of them will be actively disengaged from their jobs. They’ll be unhappy campers who make life miserable for you, their coworkers and your customers.

But if you ignore your employees completely, 40 per cent will disengage.

“Even if we’re getting criticized, we are actually more engaged simply because we feel that at least someone is acknowledging that we exist,” says Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last and Start with Why.

Of course you know better than to freeze out or grind down your direct reports. Gallup found that if you recognize and reward your employees for a job well done, employee disengagement drops to just one per cent.

Of all your responsibilities as a leader, perhaps none is more important than putting your employees inside what Sinek calls a circle of safety. It’s your job to build, expand and defend the circle and decide who’s in and who’s out.

“When we feel the circle of safety around us, we offer our blood, 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 honour and pleasure to serve them back.”

We’re hardwired to want the safety and security of a tribe with a strong leader.  While sabre-toothed tigers no longer lurk outside our caves, it’s still a hostile world. Our organizations are under constant siege from competitors, disruptive innovations and economic downturns.

Strong leaders know we can’t face these challenges head-on if we’re also fighting fires flaring up within our organizations.

“When the people have to manage dangers from inside the organization, the organization itself becomes less able to face the dangers from outside. There is no value in building organizations that compound that danger by adding more threats from the inside.”

Free of infighting, hidden agendas and power plays, we don’t waste our days worrying about who’ll stick a knife in our back. Instead, we have each other’s back. We trust the people we work with. We collaborate and innovate.

“Exceptional organizations all have cultures in which the leaders provide cover from above and the people on the ground look out for each other,” says Sinek.

“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.”

Instead of bringing everyone into a circle of safety, weak leaders retreat to an inner circle. They look after themselves and a chosen few, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. “Silos form, politics entrench, mistakes are covered up instead of exposed, the spread of information slows and unease soon replaces any sense of cooperation and safety.”

Weak leaders break the social contract. They take the pay and the perks but shirk the responsibility to protect those in their care. “If our leaders are to enjoy the trappings of their position in the hierarchy, then we expect them to offer us protection,” says Sinek. Strong leaders make personal sacrifices, put the well-being of others ahead of themselves and have the courage and integrity to do the right thing.

The final word goes to Lieutenant General George Flynn of the United States Marines, where the most junior marines are served first and the most senior eat last. “The cost of leadership is self-interest.”

@jayrobb lives and works in Hamilton and blogs at


Review: You First – Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along & Get Stuff Done by Liane Davey

you firstThis review first ran in the Feb. 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along and Get Stuff Done

By Liane Davey



My all-time favourite team-building exercise featured a metal trash can, flames and paper.

Our team-building facilitator handed us slips of paper.  We were headed on a journey. We needed the courage to lose sight of the shore.  We were told to write down what we were prepared to leave behind as we set sail and moved forward together into the future.

I don’t remember what I wrote. I’m not a fan of corporate reindeer games so I likely left my slip of paper blank or wrote “ice breakers and team building exercises”.

We went outside and stood in a circle in the parking lot  holding our slips of paper. We dropped our slips into the trash car. The facilitator doused the paper with lighter fluid and lit a match.

It was a windy. Flaming paper flew out of the trash can. What we wanted to leave behind came back to haunt us. One of our teammates got singed on the side of her head before the lid was slammed on the trash can and the fire was snuffed out. We then went back inside to reflect on what we’d learned.

Ice breakers and retreats may put the fun in dysfunctional teams. But at the end of the day, the team’s still broken and causing grief for its members and the entire organization.  This is especially true if the toxic team’s at the top of your org chart.

“The problems facing teams are serious, but instead of fixing serious teamwork problems with serious solutions, most team-building sessions focus on fun or frivolous activities like cooking classes or white-water rafting,” says Liane Davey, author of You First and VP for Global Solutions and Team Effectiveness at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. “I guess the idea is that if you can have fun outside the office, maybe you can recapture the fun back in the office. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way.”

Davey says there are five types of toxic teams.

There’s the crisis junkie team that only pulls together when there’s an urgent and immediate threat.

There’s the homogenized bobble head team.

The apathetic spectator team with members who show up for meetings, sit down and immediately check out.

The bleeding back team takes conflict underground and makes decisions through back channels.

And the ego-clashing royal rumble team is rife with personal agendas, shouting matches and vicious vendettas.

Maybe you think you can get your job done by sidestepping a toxic team and going it alone. Think again.

“Teams are the way we get work done,” says Davey. “Organizations need teams to live up to their promise instead of getting mired in dysfunction. Getting teams healthy will pay off richly in terms of productivity, innovation and risk management.”

You don’t fix a toxic team by playing games. You flush out the toxin by living up to five responsibilities. It’s a short list that Davey says is simple in theory yet difficult in practice.

Start with a positive assumption. Value what your teammates bring to the table.

Add your full value. Don’t be a spectator.

Amplify other voices. “Loan your credibility and your airtime to teammates whose minority perspectives are usually shut out of the discussion.”

Know when to say no. A team that tries to do everything invariably gets nothing done. Lose your own fear of missing out.

Embrace productive conflict and fight the good fight.

Everyone  needs to put these responsibilities into practice. The good news is a toxic team can be cured even if the leader’s clueless, a bully or bobblehead.

“Each and every team I’ve seen recover from dysfunction has been led by one brave soul who looked in the mirror and didn’t like what he or she saw. And instead of waiting for everyone else to change, that person decided to go first. Each and every team that got healthy had one member who would trust without being trusted. One person who would respond to hostility with curiousity. One person who would stand up for the teammate who others were shutting down.”

And that person can be you. Starting today.