3 Ways Simon Sinek’s “Why Leaders Eat Last” Changed My Life

Have you ever had a close friend ask you to do something and then completely dropped the ball?

Read Time: 5 minutes

Goal: Read this and leave a comment!

So about 18 months ago, my great friend, Tim Lowe (he rocks, by the way), sent me a link to a YouTube video called, “Simon Sinek: Why Leaders Eat Last.”  Tim asked me to watch the video because he wanted to discuss the contents.  Apparently, Tim really enjoyed the video.  I told him I would absolutely watch the video and would follow up with him soon.

18 MONTHS LATER

Being the great friend that I am, I waited 18 months to actually watch the video.  (I did keep my word, after all.)  But I loved it!  I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to share three things that I learned with you.

1.    There is a Biological Basis for Our Feelings 

There is a biological basis for feelings that we experience every single day.  Sinek discussed five bodily chemicals that affect our feelings.  Below are Sinek’s five chemicals and the associated feelings.

Endorphins

Endorphins mask physical pain.  They are largely responsible for the “high” you feel after exercise.  They can also function as a painkiller after you suffer an injury.

Dopamine

Dopamine causes that feeling of satisfaction that we get when we accomplish something or achieve a goal.  The purpose of dopamine is to help us make sure we can get things done.  Sinek mentioned that writing down our goals can be powerful.  Just writing down a goal can release dopamine – presumably because we believe we are moving towards completing the goals.

Serotonin

Sinek calls serotonin “the leadership chemical.”  Our bodies release serotonin when we receive public recognition.  Serotonin creates our positive feelings of pride and status.   Think about the feeling you had when you received an award or walked across a stage for a graduation ceremony.  Serotonin caused that positive feeling.  But your body will also release serotonin if you watch someone else receive recognition.  So if your child receives an award (or graduates from college, for example), then your body will release serotonin.  You will feel the same pride of satisfaction.  Serotonin explains why we love to thank people who have helped us or we will work to make other people proud.

Oxytocin

According to Sinek, oxytocin leads to the best feeling of all: the feeling that makes you feel safer when you are with people that you love.  Oxytocin causes that feeling of safety that you get when you believe that someone has your back.  There are many ways to generate this feeling.  For example, oxytocin is why hugging feels good or why a mother and child develop a bond.  Oxytocin helps explain why shaking hands matters.  Oxytocin also can be triggered by acts of human generosity or by giving without expecting anything in return.

Cortisol

Cortisol is the fight or flight chemical in our body.  Its release results in feelings of stress and anxiety, which serves to alert our bodies to signs of danger.  Since danger may be near, cortisol activates certain bodily functions, such as muscular movement, that serve to protect or allow escape.  However, cortisol also shuts down other nonessential functions, such as growth and our immune system.  So, cortisol may be harmful if the danger is unfounded or exaggerated.  Importantly, cortisol is only designed to exist in our bodies for short periods of time.

2.    Certain Addictive Behaviors Have a Chemical Basis: The Dopamine Addiction

Remember dopamine causes that feeling of satisfaction you get when you accomplish something or achieve a goal.  Yet, certain drugs or activities can cause the body to release dopamine: alcohol, nicotine, gambling, and even cell phone usage.  Accordingly, we can easily become dependent on, and addicted to, the use of certain drugs or even use of our cell phones.  Sinek notes that if you constantly feel the need to have your phone next to you, then you might be an addict.  This was a stark realization for me.  I always have my phone next to me.  I feel like I am always checking my email and looking at various apps on my phone.  Before, I looked at this activity as simply a habit.  But now I realize that it could be even more – a true addiction that dopamine enables.

Moreover, addiction can occur with simple, daily activities.  For example, if you have sales numbers that you have to hit, then your body may release dopamine when you hit those numbers or even when you make progress toward the numbers.  Both biologically and psychologically, you can become addicted to your activities that move you toward your sales goals.

Some may say that hitting our goals is a good thing, and wonder why I would even bring this up.  I really think there is a difference between hitting our goals and being addicted to checking and irrationally focusing on a goal and being unable to focus on anything else.  I can imagine myself looking at my phone every 10 seconds while I play with my kids.  I can remember myself looking at a numbers goal in my career – without focusing on the specific activities that cause me to hit the goal.  I can definitely see how a behavior can move from healthy and effective to unhealthy and addictive.  This can be damaging since the addiction can become extremely harmful if left unchecked and unbalanced.  Even if the addictive behavior may be beneficial in one area of my life, it can lead to problems in other areas.

After learning the dangers of dopamine, I feel the need to examine my life for potential addictions that are driven by dopamine.  But Sinek taught me about more than just dopamine.

3.    How Oxytocin and Cortisol Affect Leadership

Remember that oxytocin creates intense feelings of safety and comfort.  Sinek stated that leaders actually create the safety and comfort by being willing to give both time and energy – by being generous.  When a leader sacrifices for others around him or her, the leader gets a shot of oxytocin.  But so does the person who receives the generosity.  And so does anyone who witnesses the sacrifice!  Witnessing acts of human generosity causes our body to release oxytocin.  Naturally, this all leads into a cycle.  The more oxytocin we have in our body, the more generous we want to be.  The more generous and sacrificing we are, the more oxytocin that gets released, and most importantly, the safer and more comfortable we feel.

Witnessing acts of human generosity causes our body to release oxytocin

This is where the biology gets really amazing.  Remember the dopamine addiction I discussed earlier? (Picture me staring at my phone trying to play with my kids – got it?  Good.)  Oxytocin will actually inhibit addiction.  The more oxytocin we have in our body, the more difficult it is to become addicted.  Oxytocin will even boost our immune systems.  We will be healthier by engaging in this oxytocin cycle!  Sinek states that this is why happy people live longer.  And couples live longer.  Oxytocin even increases our ability to solve problems.

So how does oxytocin affect leadership?  

Think of starting a new job.  You probably will not feel safe or comfortable at the beginning.  The key to becoming comfortable (and feeling safe) is to start acting in a way that releases oxytocin.  For example, start doing small acts of generosity when at work.  Then keep giving and keep sacrificing.  And then one day you might build up enough oxytocin in your body to feel safe.

But what happens when we go to work (or any other place) and we do not feel safe?  Do you remember the chemical that gets released when we have stress or anxiety?  It’s cortisol.

Going back to our work example, the problem is that when we go to work and have stress and anxiety, we will have high levels of cortisol.  Our body will continuously release cortisol even after the stress has abated.  Our immune system will be repressed.  We will be on edge.  And, importantly, cortisol actually inhibits the release of oxytocin.

If you have high levels of cortisol and you work in an environment where you do not feel safe, then you will be biologically less empathetic and less generous.  Sadly, we will tend not to care about other people because we are too busy trying to protect ourselves.  Since our cortisol levels are constantly high, our immune systems become depressed – and we get sick!  (very sick)  Sinek yells, “Our jobs are killing us!”  Sinek also mentions that parents who come home stressed from work teach their kids that this is how “work” works.  And the kids come to expect work to be filled with anxiety and stress.  Apparently, studies have shown that kids with stressed out parents may become bullies.

Our companies are literally killing us.

So who is responsible?

Who can change all this?

Leaders.

Leaders can make the choice to start sacrificing, start giving, and start the cycle of generosity and oxytocin.  Sinek ends by saying leadership is not a rank or position.  It is a decision.  It is a choice.  All you need to do is look to the person on your right and to the person on your left, and decide to serve them.  You will be a leader (and a catalyst of the cycle of oxytocin).

QUICK TAKEAWAY (in case you just read to the bottom):

A leader needs to be generous and sacrifice to build an organization by making everyone around feel safe and comfortable. (thank you, oxytocin!)

Here is a link to the full talk (46 minutes).

Did you find this helpful?  Do you suffer from dopamine addiction? Let me know in the comments below!

  • Kel Scott

    Thank you for the summary. Very thought-provoking. I recently read a line which fits very well with the information you have related: “a humble man has no stress.” When one puts others interests ahead of their own, as the humble do, oxytocin flows. This also works very well in marriages and friendships.

    Thanks for taking the time to write and to share. You are one of those who carry an air of humility and generosity with your time and energy. Thank you for the oxytocin shot. 🙂 Kel

    • John Mashni

      Thanks for the comment, Kel! I appreciate your feedback.

  • Al Yambor

    Excellent post once again. It seems important to be self-aware of whether or not our behaviors are driving the chemicals or we are letting the chemicals drive our behavior. Thanks for sharing.