As I See It: The Hungry Leader
June 12, 2017 Victor Rozek
Corporate leaders like to compare business to the military. From top-down command structures, to having a “mission,” that can only be accomplished by “capturing” market share, and “crushing” the competition; it all sounds very Ramboesque. Given the languaging you would think every CEO was the second coming of George Patton. Turns out Patton had more regard for the people under his command.
Besides the fact that the color of corporate bloodshed is green, there is a core difference between military ethics and corporate ethics. Author and TED Talk regular Simon Sinek succinctly summarizes the difference. The military, says Sinek, “gives medals to people who sacrifice themselves so others may gain.” In business, “we give bonuses to people who sacrifice others so they may gain.”
We have it backwards, says Sinek.
To explain his vision of compelling leadership, Sinek starts at the beginning. Literally. He begins long before corporations owned the earth, before commuting and coffee, downsizing and debt; a time before jobs for that matter.
It was an era marked by pervasive threat. Animals as big as earthmovers with teeth the size of stalactites roamed off leash. Man caves were actual caves. And the prospects of hunger, injury, and attacks from hostile clans delimited a short and brutish life.
As in most corporate cultures, prehistoric alpha males ascended to lead and were treated with deference by subordinates. By virtue of their position, they were the first to eat, entitled to the best cuts of meat, and the finest mate. (Thus began the concept of the trophy wife still popular today, even in the most prestigious cave in the nation.) No one complained because it was understood that when danger came knocking, the alpha male would be first to race out of the cave and face it. Deference was traded for safety. This symbiotic relationship also filled the most basic human need for belonging, whether the unit was the family, the clan, or the tribe. Thus, early social structures were built on the twin pillars of safety and inclusion.
Move the clock ahead and people still collaborate in order to feel safe and to belong. And the alphas in corporate organizations still enjoy perks and deferential treatment: bigger office, more money, car and driver, bonuses, stock options. And like their less dominant tribal predecessors, employees still face an array of continuous threats from the outside: competition, economic fluctuations, market shifts, cheap labor, layoffs, terrorism, and natural disasters.
Employees also face a variety of internal threats: corporate politics, reorganizations, offshoring, and hostile takeovers. These threats are intensified when employees believe their boss doesn’t have their back; that when danger comes, the boss will be the first to dart to safety, and they will be left to fend for themselves. And when people don’t feel safe at work, they exert the bulk of their energy worrying – which has been accurately described as negative meditation – and protecting themselves from each other. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. It floods the body when extreme stress, paranoia, or fight-or-flight situations present. It is meant to alert us and then leave the system. In continuous doses, it can be very damaging. Sinek warns that a workplace that produces incessant cortisol-generating events is literally killing its employees. It’s a workplace under threat.
Like the clan in the dark recesses of the cave huddled against looming danger, we expect the better-fed, stronger, privileged leader to protect us from such threats. As Sinek puts it: “If you’re not willing to give up your perks when it matters, you probably shouldn’t be promoted.”
Leadership, says Sinek, comes at a cost. The nation was livid with the banksters who crashed the economy not because they made ungodly amounts of money, but because they were willing to sacrifice the welfare of so many people to get it. We were “deeply and viscerally offended,” says Sinek, “because they abdicated the responsibility of the alpha.” And the responsibility of the alpha, according to Sinek, is to include and to protect. Inclusion requires face-to-face communication – the gift of one’s time. Technology, although convenient, is impersonal. Just as a card is more appreciated than an email, personal contact is more compelling than digital messaging.
To illustrate the importance of safety, Sinek again references antiquity. This time the Spartans. Among ancient peoples, the Spartans were considered master warriors. Trained from an early age, a Spartan soldier had two inviolable rules: Always keep your weapon within arm’s reach; and never, under any circumstances, surrender your shield.
A Spartan could lose his helmet or his armor with impunity, but would be disgraced if he lost his shield. The reason for the prohibition was both tactical and altruistic. Warriors wore armor for their own protection; but they carried a shield for the protection of the entire line. The shield wall was the most essential component of victory. The critical piece of equipment, notes Sinek, was the shield, not the spear. The shield.
The Spartan soldier’s prayer was: “Lord, let me not prove unworthy of my brothers.” It’s hard to imagine a CEO reciting that prayer each morning. The concept of corporate brotherhood, (those who reside within the circle of safety and belonging), is most often limited to top management and boards of directors. Sinek argues that a leader’s responsibility is to expand the circle of inclusion out to the margins. Great leaders, he says, include everyone.
Another Spartan practice, one which Sinek does not address but is nonetheless instructive, was reflective of their attitude toward money. Competition based on status and acquisition was thought to be divisive. Money, as we know it, was outlawed. What coins existed were comically impractical. A loaf of bread could be purchased by a coin the size of a man’s head. It was made of iron and weighed a whopping 30 pounds. The practical result was that – unable to covet wealth – men were free to pursue virtue instead.
“Virtue” seems like a quaint concept by today’s standards. We’ve seen many CEOs obscenely rewarded in spite of failed and unethical management practices that have harmed companies and investors. Such leaders seek power but want immunity from the consequences of its use. They crave command like a glutton craves his lunch. Those are not real leaders, Sinek would argue.
Real leaders, he says, eat last.