Letters to my child. Leadership, Business and Kaizen.

Simon Sinek: Leaders Eat Last

Leaders Eat Last

Leaders Eat Last

First impressions are important. Everybody knows that. In books, writers tend to rewrite and rework their first ten pages until they achieve perfection in their eyes.

I cannot recall the last meal my wife prepared for me… both comment on my bad memory and the frequency in which she cooks… but I remember “Call me Ishmael“, “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene” and “The boy’s name was Santiago“.

In case my wife reads this and gets upset, let me also include Jane Austen’s intro to Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that s single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”   = ) *Happy Valentine’s Day

Rowling’s second chapter in Harry Potter detailing the way he was mistreated created an instant connection with the reader where we all rooted for the orphan. Nobody would read the series if the main character was the bully as opposed to the bullied. Think about it.

Having said all that, I have no clue why Simon Sinek opened “Leaders Eat Last” with an example taken from the US military. Not only that, he even referenced the Marine Corp in the dust jacket of the book.

My problem is not with the US military. My father in law served the Air Force. My brother in law still serves the Air Force and my other brother in law served in the US Army.

My problem with Simon’s opening is that the military has a unique leadership and team structure. While most would argue falls into the traditional team type, there are unique characteristics when it comes to leadership, purpose, teamwork, discipline, measurement, respect and the warrior ethos.

I conducted some brief interviews, read a forum post from PFC Manchester, downloaded several files on the history of the Marine Corp and my Mastermind group recommended I watch two movies one more time with leadership in mind: A Few Good Men and Saving Private Ryan.

What follows serves as an argument against Simon’s first chapter but “Leaders Eat Last” is  a great book. His chapter on oxytocin alone was worth my time and I will definitely buy anything else he publishes.


The army has an extremely strict leadership hierarchy. All orders flow through this well established chain of command. Just like in most organizations, people move up based on demonstrated abilities, accomplishments in the field or simply by time served.

However, for reasons that will be outlined below… military leadership relies heavily on what John Maxwell calls Level 1: Position.

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Position alone dictates leadership. In the Army, there is absolutely no need for a leader to seek his follower’s permission to lead. That particular trait is there by design. Team leaders in the army need to make sure that all of his or her soldiers are prepared for combat at all times.

A fine example of the hierarchy in the army is shown in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, where eight soldiers were given the mission to risk their lives into enemy occupied territory in order to save Ryan. At one point one of the soldiers asks the captain if he has any complaints about the mission. The captain, played by Tom Hanks, simply says that in the Army’s chain of command, “Complaints go up.” Army leaders do not have to explain themselves or their missions to ensure completion.

That works in the military. I could never pull that off at work. Imagine if my responses to EVERY complaint was, “I will let my boss know.” What if my boss did the same and simply passed the complaint up? Without empathy and connecting to my employees I would never be able to reach the next level and lead by permission. When you lead by permission, people follow me because they want to do so, not because they have to.

Reaching this second level where you lead by permission is essential to inspiring emotional labour.

How come the military does not require their leaders to lead by permission? Simply put, they incite emotional labour and effort in a very unique way: a deep sense of purpose.


In a nutshell, the US Army’s sense of purpose is to preserve peace, support national policies, implement national objectives and spread democracy to every country.

U.S. Armed Forces. §3062 of Title 10 US Code

U.S. Armed Forces. §3062 of Title 10 US Code

That is what they put on paper, but if you ask a soldier he is likely to say: Duty, Honor, Country. A US Marine would say,  “Semper Fi” (Always faithful). Unit, Corps, God, Country.

I am  true believer in Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. In my opinion this heightened sense of purpose is what makes the military a very unique team type. US soldiers truly believe they fight for freedom. 

Think back to the key scene in Braveheart. Scottish soldiers were on the verge of giving up because they felt no sense of purpose in fighting. “We didn’t come here to fight for them!”, says one toothless soldier who does not want to fight for his lord.

What if the Freedom Speech ended with, “[…] And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all of days from this day to that for one chance… just one chance… to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they will never decrease shareholder value / sell more houses / deliver more pizzas?”

The original speech ends with “they will never take our freedom.” Nothing beats that sense of purpose. Until the day the human race has to unite against a common enemy and face extinction (giant asteroid, alien invasion or Godzilla??? ), nothing will ever beat that sense of purpose.

The best speech I ever gave at work will never stack up to epic speeches because the stakes are lower. While the exact military motto (Duty, Honor, Country) cannot be implemented at work, we do have three central values. This is taken from our parent company’s corporate page:

Lactalis - Core Values

Lactalis – Core Values

Each of the three translate into ten core behavioural competencies. I think it is a great effort and it will help align the team. I cannot list them here since they belong to our internal corporate advisory, but they will definitely represent a competitive advantage when implemented at all levels.


Simply put, in the military you put your life in the hands of your team. Collaboration is crucial.

In “Leaders Eat Last”, Simon Sinek tells the story of a pilot nicknamed Johny Bravo who risked his life to save the lives of 22 American soldiers. When asked why he did it, he said they would have done the same for him. That makes the military unique when it comes to teamwork.

“In the military they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so others may gain. In business we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so we may gain.” – Simon Sinek

We had one work related fatality in the past year and I have accompanied ambulances taking co-workers and my subordinates to the ER six times so far but we dot not deal with life and death situations. We drill, prepare and rise to the occasion when we face an industrial emergency but that is not our day to day.

The notion of self sacrifice in business is very rare. Without resorting to Google search I can only think of the CEO of Nintendo, Satoru Iwate who took a 50% pay cut two weeks ago. There was also a factory in Indiana that agreed to take pay cuts to keep everyone employed last year.

The 5 Levels of Leadership

The 5 Levels of Leadership

I am trying my best to steer my current team from (3)Production to (4)People Development and creating a succession plan but I really cannot tell if we have reached the cohesion point where self sacrifice is also self evident.

A key point that makes the military so unique is the fact that a lot of the rituals are part of a heritage. It gets transmitted from generation to generation. It is almost like a whole new culture.

While this culture certainly did not exist when I inherited my team, perhaps it is something highly effective teams can aspire to achieve.


Soldiers do what they are told. No questions asked. They follow orders. They all obey the dress code, make their beds the same way and march the same way. Several restrictions are put in place and without this discipline soldiers would be ineffective carrying out their tasks.

Enforcing discipline and excellence is also part of the military life. There is a sense of entitlement in pushing people to their limit when you can justify your actions with “Unit, Corps, God, Country.”

In A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson plays Colonel Jessup, a marine who believed that his role was to make the country strong at all costs, even if it meant bullying under performers. In the movie the Colonel gives orders for two of his soldiers to shave, gag and beat one of the weaker marines.

I think most people have met at least one co-worker that is always hurting the team. Sometimes I have to deal with under performers but my job is to bring them back on track. I don’t call them to the parking lot and beat them up. That is not an option that is open for me.

Another key factor here. At work when someone drops the ball I send them home. In the military when someone drops the ball… they really want to go home but can’t.


A lot can be said about measurement but I am gong to focus on something that can be translated to business: performance measurement.

Due to the long tradition and history of the US Army, soldiers are also measured against those that served before them. A nice example comes from West Point. Last year a cadet broke the record for an indoor obstacle course that stood for 20 years. There is a video of the feat online.

An extrapolation of measurement in the military comes in the closing scene of “Men of Honor” starring Robert DeNiro and Cuba Gooding Junior. Great movie! I am not going to spoil the end for those who have not seen it but here is the trailer:

In most businesses nowadays it is difficult to measure results in the same way because there are several variables. Inflation, current market share and even technology play a large role in most performance indicators. It is difficult but not impossible. Part of my job is to prepare daily reports and weekly reports listing individual accomplishments achieved by my team.

Since I work in a warehousing environment the only variables for long term measurements are physical location and technology. However, I do keep track of single day records achieved each calendar year. Everything that adds value is tracked and date-time stamped to each of our employees. I divide it into pallets received, pallets put away, pallets shipped, pallets refilled, pallets picked for major customers. The employees that are solely involved in filling orders for smaller customers are measured in terms of locations “touched” and cases picked.

At work, just like in the military we do have a single day record for cases picked in a single day. It dates back to 2005. When that employee retires we may even hang his uniform close to the ceiling as a show of respect and appreciation.


When it comes to respect in the US Army, there is a shift towards a new trend where acceptance is key. However, as far as I can tell by the very limited number of people I have spoken to… there isn’t a lot of respect for the “enemy”. There isn’t a whole lot of respect even between the different branches of the military.

The interaction between Lt. Kafee played by Tom Cruise and Lt. Kendrick played by Kiefer Sutherland makes for a good scene but it also rings true. While they all fight a common enemy, you can ask any soldier and they will tell you their branch if the military is the best.

This is more than just a recruiting tool. As each branch seeks to fill its minimum requirements, differentiation adds pride to the equation.

Pride brings passion. Passion leads to emotional labour.

Let me start by saying that I believe respect is universal. However, I completely understand how pride can strengthen the structure of a team. In NBC’s The Office, there is a clear division between the office and the warehouse. They even have a basketball game with separate teams.

A similar division exists in my workplace. We have shipping (my team) and production. Either by design or not, these two departments have different uniforms, different parking spots, take breaks at separate times and even start and finish work at different times.

Everything is different, so they can’t help but feel like they are separate teams. As such, there is always the feeling of pride from believing that they are doing better than the other side when it comes to attendance, performance and a flawless safety record since I took over.

Like I said before, pride is good and leads to emotional labour. I also said I believe in respect, so how do I manage to get all that from my team?


US Army Warrior Ethos

US Army Warrior Ethos

At work we do not have missions… I actually accept when people come to me and quit. We seldom have a “fallen comrade” and when we do, that is when the whole team performs at the peak of their abilities… it happens so rarely that adrenaline alone accounts for the shift in pace and mindset.

I can go as far as to say that some people love when I yell, “This is not a drill!”

However, we are a team. We have goals. We have targets and deadlines. We watch the clock. We help each other. I recently implemented John Wooden‘s 3 rules at work.

1- Show up on time;

2- No profanity (on Tuesdays);

3- Don’t say anything negative about a team member.

The first is self explanatory. The second one I had to modify in order to achieve my goal. By the end of the year I will have cleaned up their language at work.

The third one is crucial. I implemented by explaining it is my job to track performance, correct costly behaviour and provide feedback.

What happened was a complete shift in attitude. When you remove negativity from the workplace, you are left with positive attitude. The extroverts that would often voice their opinion continued to come to me but since they can’t say anything negative, they bring up positives.

Together these three rules form our ethos. Respectively they show respect for my time, for the workplace and for each other.

Pyramid of Success

Pyramid of Success

As we conquer these rules, we are better suited to move on to line up with our new core values of ambition, engagement and simplicity.

I would be amiss if I didn’t include this video:

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Categorised in: Book Review, Sports and Leadership

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