How did hierarchies come to exist? Why do only a select few lead? Is there really much difference between how societies functioned in the pre-historic era and how they function now? And what do all these questions and topics have in common?

Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek attempts to answer these questions by delving into the science of neurochemicals – our hormones vis. a vis. leadership! How are our behaviors affected due to the natural functioning of our biology? And how do these neurochemicals affect leadership qualities?

The Biology Of Leadership

Our bodies release about 50 different types of hormones. Yet, dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins are some of the most talked about. That is because these hormones can by-and-large affect the behavior of humans. Our hormones have evolved over time to adapt to the conditions that surrounded us, by controlling and moderating our behaviors. Hormones are responsible for that even today.

Dopamine is the hormone that makes a person feel happy and content on completion of a take. For example, the happy sense of accomplishment one gets when they reach their weight-loss goals or if we find a lost key, is caused by dopamine.

Serotonin and oxytocin are known as relationship hormones because they affect our behaviors when we need to make meaningful relationships. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. These disguise the pain of exhaustion as physical pleasure, making us feel renewed after a strenuous workout.

Because hormones affect behavior they have also shaped the way human society is structured. For example, the hunter-gatherers needed to feel the rush of endorphins to push them towards finding a kill. On the other hand, others who could not participate, we considered the ‘weaker’ section and were given easier tasks such as fruit gathering. These differences were the first references to hierarchy.

Additionally, hormones were responsible for cohesion within the society as well. Affection towards a leader, respect for the hunter-gatherers, etc. were behaviors that the hormones serotonin and oxytocin were responsible for. It explains why the weaker men would look up to the hunters or leaders have respect for one another and not jealousy.

Based on this understanding, let us analyse the relation between leader, organization, and how humans respond to these.

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

Feeling Safe With A Leader

Humans, being social, were conditioned to live in groups and form social circles. When there were a number of dangers such as predators, diseases, natural disasters, and other people, this group offered safety and ensured survival.

The concept of living in a group helped us feel secure. With security taken care of, mankind was able to focus on other tasks such as making tools, etc. that helped us to advance as societies. The human brain has also evolved to give priority to security and safety. This reflects in some of our behaviors today. For example, due to the security that a job offers, a person would continue to do it even if the work environment is very bad.

However, when we look at groups, it is the leaders who draw the ‘safety-circle’, protecting the members of the group. The members within this group protect and trust each other, and share resources. The leader also determines how large or small is the safety circle and to whom it extends.

Bob Chapman of HayssenSandiacre, allowed employees free access to the services and goods of the company. This trusting work environment helps in strengthening the bonds between the employees, who extended a helping hand to those in need, even in personal matters.

This shows that it is the leader who can create a feeling of safety and foster a healthy environment in the group.

Leading By Manifesting Culture

An organization isn’t all about its profits, shareholders, amazing products and services, and infrastructure. Its workforce and the culture that prevails due to that workforce, how they interact, approach issues, work together, treat their clients and customers, and prioritize values, are equally important. 

Therefore it extremely important that a leader not only has knowledge of how culture influences the organization but also how to craft its culture and maintain it. This is because the culture runs through the fabric of the organization – from the leadership down to its staff at the lowest level.

An extraordinary example can be seen in the employees of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. In the year 2008, terrorists attacked the hotel. While some of the employees had managed to flee, they returned to help the guests staying at the hotel. Some of them even made human shields to protect the guests while they were escaping. About half of the people who perished in the attack were the hotel staff.

The staff put their customers before their lives. A clear indication of how the values of the hotel, and the culture were ingrained in the staff.

Empathy and Responsibility As A Leader

A leader is responsible for the group he leads. Therefore, if there is a gap between the leader and his group, it can cause severe damage to the organization. Moreover, if a leader does not feel responsible for the group, he becomes uncaring.

It is essential that a leader is empathetic. Without it, a leader could become emotionally distant from his employees, and the situation could be worse if there is a physical distance between the leader and his team. The leader would then never be able to see and understand how gravely his actions affect his employees. This is called abstraction.

The Milgram Experiment is a good example of abstraction. Volunteers called Teachers were asked to administer electric shocks – in increasing intensity from mild to potentially lethal – to another group of volunteers called Learners. Teachers did not know that the Learners were all actors and that they weren’t really being shocked.

The experiment proved that though many Teachers expressed uneasiness at harming others, it was apparent that the more the distance between a Teacher and a Learner, the more likely the Teacher was willing to continue. The experiment also showed that in a group where the Teachers could neither see the Learners writhing nor hear their (false) screams ended up administering a lethal dose.

When abstraction occurs, a leader cannot look beyond his own interest and tends to make decisions for others, which can be extremely harmful for an organization.

Selfishness And Dehumanization Of A Leader

Just as being surrounded by people of one’s group offers a feeling of safety and progress, being alone can make a person selfish and dehumanize other people. The Baby Boomer generation is a classic example. Being the generation that was born after WWII, they grew up in a thriving economy, were spoilt by their parents and thus, grew to become critical of authority and were self-centered, unlike their parents who came together in solidarity during war times.

This sense of self-centredness was clear in their acceptance of Ronald Reagan’s managing of the 1981 air controllers’ strike, where he sided with profiting companies over the well being of the workers.

Once a leader prioritizes profits of the business, technology, advancement, and the sheer strength and scale at which the businesses operate it becomes dehumanizing in a manner where leaders tend to view customers, employees, shareholders as abstractions or as tools to fulfill a business goal. Leaders stop considering them as a living beings with wants, feelings, and needs of their own.

Do you know what makes you happy? Or sad?
Do you know what makes you happy? Or sad?

Addiction To Advancement

Technology and advancement have brought us instant gratification, which releases dopamine in our body once we feel it. Since this advancement and technology helps us get better and faster with our work, thus enhancing our performance, we need to feel the satisfaction and the gratification again and again. We become addicted to advancement.

We forget the value of stability and long-term satisfaction. Because technology makes everything as instant as ‘clicking’ a button we become addicted to the quick fix, eventually losing the patience to wait for results.

This can be well explained with any human rights campaign on Facebook. The moment we click on it, we get elated for doing something worthwhile so soon. We get used to the ‘quick fix’ rather than actually going out to volunteer for a cause we believe in. The release of dopamine that we get on clicking a button and being part of any campaign becomes an empty addiction. 

Integrity And Bonding

Humans put trust in their leaders. Therefore it is essential that leaders have integrity. We expect that our leaders are honest about their mistakes and take responsibility for their errors. In fact, the feeling of safety that a group develops towards their leader is built on the foundation of trust and the ability of the leader to bond with the group.

Ralph Lauren Corporation, in the year 2009, found out that their Argentinian Branch was involved in bribery. The leaders informed the authorities and even agreed to help them, rather than cover –up the incident. In due course, they had to pay huge fines in penalties. However, they safeguarded their integrity and deepened the trust their employees had for them.

Bonding with the group is another important responsibility a leader has. If we see the US Congress, we will find that most of the members live outside Washington and travel there for a few days or a week. This has resulted in the lowest approval ratings in history today, as compared to the 1990s, where close cooperation between the congressmen and women resulted in making laws that reflected the closeness and regular communication between the members.

Service Before Self

Why would any group vote and put their trust in a leader that is ordinary? Wouldn’t they prefer to have someone extraordinary who leads with a clear vision in mind? The group follows the leader towards a goal and mission in spite of having their own individual goals due to the focused vision they have, that aligns with the needs of the group.

Microsoft is able to maintain its place in the market despite having huge profits because of the singular vision of Bill Gates – to put a computer on every desk.

When a leader leads a group towards a goal with a vision, he actually does the employee service, and not the other way round. A person becomes a true leader if he can understand the fact that leaders serve the people. Privileges aside, leaders should be willing to use their personal resources in times of crisis.

The most senior member is the US Marine Corps eats his meal last. This is because they put the needs of their Marines before their own needs. 


A leader should understand that the members of their group do not follow them only out of compulsion (because they are working in the organization), or due to some personal gain, but also because being part of the group is a biological, chemical reaction that makes them want to trust and follow the leader. 

Therefore, to be a leader means to firstly, guide the group selflessly, without having the want of success and self-promotion. Leaders should in fact work towards ensuring that all the members of the group have a fair opportunity to succeed and they help them reach their goals.