Leaders Eat Last

Originally published on October 3, 2018 in the Montrose Daily Press.

A very popular leader-ism is “leaders eat last.” Adapted from the military and made pop-culture-famous by Simon Sinek’s book so titled, many are buying in. Aside from actually eating last, application of this concept is more about servant leadership than anything else.

Having “the vision” is arguably one of the greatest necessities of leadership; solving problems, knowing how to handle the unexpected, being the tie that binds. Leaders can easily develop a routine that leads down a path of autonomous operation. If this sounds familiar, consider pausing and breaking up the routine by bringing the team into the visionary mix.

1. “No but…” kills more ideas and ambition than anything else ever will. I recently attended a session called “Fire Your Internal Editor” at Denver Startup Week. In groups, we were tasked with brainstorming product solutions that would replace nail clippers. I was partnered with two people whose brains worked much differently than mine. As we journeyed through ideas, my brain wanted a tool that was just like the nail clipper and did the job exactly the same. My partners pushed the envelope and threw out outlandish ideas! For example: a nail eating fish who also shine your nails as you rest your hand in the fish bowl at your desk. I resisted saying, “No, this won’t work! There probably isn’t even a fish who will do that and who wants to do that at their desk?”

In resisting the urge, my teammates had space to be crazy with their imagination. Great ideas start from a place of outlandishness. All of them do. If we don’t allow ourselves and our team freedom and invitation to be outlandish and crazy with imagination, we will just have the same result. Practice saying, “yes and…” rather than “no but…”

2. Choose someone else’s idea in its entirety. I can’t take credit for this, but felt it was too brilliant not to share. Retired Navy Seal and current entrepreneur Jocko Willink put it like this (paraphrasing): “When you and another person find yourself arguing about the best way to do something, always choose their idea.” Within reason, if a member of your team has a different idea on handling things than you, choose their idea. Not only does this empower your team member showing them you value and trust their input, but it also motivates them to work hard. They will have the intrinsic motivation of carrying it to success because it was their idea.

I can’t think of a place this doesn’t apply. In marriage, in parenthood and certainly in the workplace. It exudes the essence of humility and makes us all easier and more agreeable to work with.

3. What do you think? Anytime a team member asks for direction or help, first ask them, “What do you think?” Listen then perhaps offer a “yes and ...” and let them try the approach their way (similar concept as above). The goal of leadership is developing people to one day take our role or one similar. How else will we move on to greater things? How else will our organizations be successful once we are gone?

Being the guard and hoarder of all the information and forcing all the decisions to go through the leadership filter can lead to career suicide. Take the example of the manager of a retail store: The manager has three part-time employees. The manger has ambitions to help grow the company and one day travel around being the regional manager who opens new stores and gets them off the ground. The opportunity comes and the manager is passed over for the promotion. Mystified, the manager confronts the owner of the business. “My sales are at the top of all of our locations! I work hard and never complain!” The owner listens and then matter-of-factly explains to the manager that she was not promoted because she didn’t take the time to be a good leader. Further angered, the manager argued, “My staff are top sellers. They are professional, and they offer excellent customer service. Our customer surveys say as much.”

The owner listened and then said, “Yes, those things are true. However, what have you done to develop your employees? What have you done to bring them up so that they can one day run the store when you’re gone? What will we do when you are no longer at this store? It will fail without you. A good leader develops those in her care so that they too can have success as well as carry on the legacy of the organization.” The manager was sobered and humbled by the words of the owner.

Leaders eat last. Leaders choose their idea last. Leaders develop the skills of others before their own. Leaders share knowledge and experience. So if you must eat first, let it be a slice of humble pie.

Chelsea Rosty is the director of business innovation for the City of Montrose. She can be reached at crosty@ci.montrose.co.us.