SOUL Q&A: Simon Sinek
April 21, 2016
Tell us about your book Leaders Eat Last.
It’s all about trust and cooperation. Everybody knows that trust is important – that’s not a revelation – but if you ask somebody how to build trust and how cooperation happens, that’s much more elusive. You know, how do you form a group of people that care about each other and love each other and watch each other’s backs? It’s not my nature to sort of just go look at case studies – I’m much more fascinated with why things happen, so I wanted to find the very roots of trust and cooperation.
It's an interesting concept, what makes people tick in their work setting. What inspired you to write this book?
It was born out of my own frustrations. I had some experiences where I thought that people were my friends and it turns out they just wanted something from me. And it really shook me because I couldn’t tell the difference since they were acting like friends. And so that’s what sent me on this path.
I feel like everyone has had those experiences to some degree.
It’s true, it’s true.
And it’s so disheartening.
It’s very disheartening. And you don’t want to lose faith in people. Sometimes it happens professionally, where somebody acts like they get along with you but they really just want to do business with you or they want access to something you have access to. Or sometimes you see it happen in dating, where they like you for other reasons and it’s not you, unfortunately.
Exactly, it’s not limited to one place. Can you explain the idea of “officers eating last”?
It came from a conversation I had with a Marine Corps General. I asked him a very simple question: What makes Marines so good at what they do? And he replied simply, “Officers Eat Last.” If you visit any Marine Base anywhere in the world, during chow time you’ll see that they line up in rank order. And even though the senior person has the right to eat first, the most junior person eats first and the most senior person eats last. No one tells them they have to, it’s not in any rulebook and no order is given. It’s simply because they view leadership not as a rank, but as a responsibility, and it manifests in this very funny way where, just like a parent feeds their child before they feed themselves, so too does an effective leader feed their people before they feed themselves.
How does that idea translate into a more traditional work environment?
When the leader is willing to take the risk first or sacrifice their interests to take care of others, other people will take care of one another as well; other people will sacrifice their interests to take care of each other. But if the leader doesn’t do that — if the leader eats first — then that’s exactly what the rest of the company will do too. They’ll put themselves ahead of each other.
You speak a lot about leadership and management. How did you learn so much about these topics?
I live in the world. I’m subject to these things. I want to live in a world in which I get to wake up every single morning inspired to go to work, to feel safe while I’m there and go home fulfilled at the end of the day. I want to live in a world where the vast majority of people feel the same way. It’s not that I have a particular hankering for leadership or management, but I guess my interests wafted in that direction simply because of the vision I’m trying to build.
What has been the most life-changing moment you've experienced?
There have been a couple of significant inflection points. One inflection point was several years ago, when I had lost my passion for what I was doing, which was a very, very dark period. All of my energy went into pretending that I was happier and more successful and more in control than I felt, which is a very lonely place, I’ll tell you. It was only when I friend came to me and said, “I’m worried about you; you’re not yourself,” did it give me the courage to solve the problem, and that – that journey – ended with the discovery of the concept of why. You know, the purpose that drives every one of us. And I realized I knew what I did and I knew how I did it, but I didn’t know why. So that impacted my life greatly. I shared it with my friends and it impacted their lives, and then their friends wanted to hear about it, so I would go to someone’s apartment to talk about it, and that changed the course of my career and the course of my personal life.
Amazing. That's definitely a different path!
There’s another inflection point when I had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan with the United States Air Force in 2011. Everything on our trip went wrong. After 10 minutes on the ground, the base came under rocket attack. We hadn’t even gotten off the plane yet. Long story short, a lot of other things went wrong, we couldn’t get on the plane home, I thought I was going to get stuck there and I became paranoid that there was going to be another rocket attack, but we ended up getting onto another plane that was diverted. My two escorts and I were the only three passengers aboard this aircraft and we carried home a flag draped casket.
Wow. That's powerful.
Yes it was. There I was, on a big Air Force cargo plane for nine and a half hours, sitting next to a fallen Soldier. It was a great honor, I’ll tell you. But that sticks with you. That had an impact. And I came home and realized that people bicker about such silly things at work and here was a group of people who put on a uniform and were willing to sacrifice their lives for people they don’t even like. That experience translated into Leaders Eat Last.
That’s an incredible story. What advice do you have for people overcoming obstacles in life?
Ask for help. Life is difficult and it is fraught with danger. Anybody who thinks they can do difficult and dangerous things by themselves is crazy. You would never do anything difficult or dangerous by yourself, you would only go with someone. So why do you think that you can live a life by yourself? You can’t. You have to have close friends and people who love you. You have to ask for help and you have to accept it when it’s offered. The only way that those things will happen is if you’re willing to take the risk first and offer your help to others. That’s just the deal. You’ve got to take care of each other.
There are so many individuals who are unhappy in their jobs or careers. What advice do you have for people who want to feel more fulfilled?
So there’s an entire section in the bookshop called "Self Help," and there’s no section in the bookshop called "Help Others." That’s the problem. We put ourselves at the center of everything – me, me, me, me, me. How can I lose 10 pounds? How can I find the job that I love? How can I be happy? How can I find a husband or a wife?
At the end of the day, the irony is that our own personal joy comes from the sacrifice to help others. So the question isn’t, “How do I find the job that I love?” The question is, “How do I help this person that I care about find lasting career success?” The question isn’t, “How can I turn around in my own job?” The question is, “How can I ensure that the people with whom I work can go home every day feeling that they had such a great day at work?” That is how you turn it around.
Amazing advice. Where do you find inspiration and motivation in your daily life?
I get it from the same place as everybody else. I’m a sucker for stories of service. You know, there are people in my life that I turn to and admire and seem to live a life of service, and they inspire me. They remind me of the importance of that. I like being around people who are willing to sacrifice for the good of others and who are willing to express a vulnerability – admit when they make mistakes, admit when they don’t know something. It makes me feel human.
What tips do you have for others hoping to find more themselves?
How the rest of us find it? It’s the same thing that I mentioned before. If we put ourselves at the center of the equation, then we’re choosing to go through life by ourselves. The way we will find inspiration is by working to inspire those around us. That’s how you will find it. Work every day to inspire those around you and I promise you – I promise you – people will inspire you. The harder I work on my own cause — the harder I work to inspire people to do what inspires them — the more I’m inspired by the people around me.
Have you ever taken a ride at SoulCycle?
Yes, I have.
What was your first ride like? Take us through your SOUL Journey.
I tried indoor cycling once and I hated it. I hurt my back – nobody told me that you had to sit back in your seat, that it puts too much pressure on your back – so I couldn’t walk for a day too. So I swore indoor cycling off. Then I was in LA and a friend of mine (who used to be my trainer) invited me to her class at a different indoor cycling studio. She taught me that I had to sit back in my seat, and it [the overall experience] was okay. I came back to New York and went out for dinner with a friend, and he does SoulCycle obsessively. So I finally agreed to try it with him. And I really liked it.. And I won’t go back to any of the other studios now.
What's is your favorite way to relieve stress?
Exercise is an obvious one, but I’m a homebody, an introvert, so for me, disconnecting and recharging my batteries. Maybe being with one friend is fine, but I go home.
Which book has changed your life?
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. I think it should be required reading for the entire world. You know, his big conclusion is we cannot control the circumstances around us; all we can only control is our attitude. And for anyone, when you find yourself playing the victim, it’s a good reminder.
It is. What mantra do you live by?
Well, I wrote on my mirror that I see every morning, “Today, you will inspire someone.” But there’s a Henry Ford quote that I actually printed out and stuck next to my bedside table, and it says, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” So I guess my motto is, you know, inspire someone – both as a reminder and an instruction. I live by that.
• Pictured: Simon Sinek with instructor Charlee Atkins
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