In corporate America, leaders eat first


We love to glorify the importance of leadership in corporate culture. Great business leaders — Richard Branson, Jack Welch, Peter Drucker, Warren Buffett — take on an almost god-like status, every word they speak treated like the proclamations of a prophet.

Yet in spite of our obsession with the power of great leadership, corporate culture as a whole suffers from a profound lack of it (I suspect these two observations are related).

Simon Sinek, another leadership demi-god of our corporate age, famously said, “Leaders eat last.” I was lucky enough to see him speak at the annual ATD conference last year. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but I appreciated his willingness to speak truth to power about the sorry state of leadership in the corporate world today. Everyone applauded at his theories of great leadership. No one applauded at his searing practical critique of the finance industry leaders who got us into the mess of the Great Recession (though I saw several well-dressed executives shift uncomfortably in their seats). Damn, I wish I’d clapped then.

Because the truth is that most leaders don’t eat last. They eat first.

When a company needs to cut costs because of poor decisions at the top, front-line employees tend to be the ones who disproportionately lose their jobs. When a company does well financially, wealth tends to disproportionately accrue to investors, shareholders and executive bonuses, not the aforementioned employees whose labor created that wealth.

Leaders eat first, even kind, well-meaning leaders who genuinely do care about their teams, because the system is designed to feed them first. I’ll never forget the first time I truly understood this. I was at a company leadership team offsite, sitting around a table with the rest of my executive team making “important business decisions.”

And I realized that if we fucked up, if our strategy was totally wrong and we had to change course, we probably wouldn’t be the ones to lose our jobs. We wouldn’t lose the ability to feed our families against our will. Other employees might. But we would eat first.

Maybe I’m being unfair. People, even leaders (especially leaders), make honest mistakes. Economic downturns happen. The world changes, and business must change along with it. This is all true. And it is also still true that when these unfortunate events occur, frontline employees almost always suffer more. Leaders eat first.

So what does this mean if you’re the sort of leader who wants to eat last, who believes in servant leadership and cares deeply about doing the right thing by your people?

I tried to be this kind of leader for my team. I don’t know how well I succeeded, but I learned a few things along the way:

  1. You’ll be uncomfortable a lot. You’ll find yourself advocating for positions that could potentially lead to fewer profits or greater inefficiency because you believe it’s what best for your company’s people rather than your company’s bottom line. When there’s a clear money-making idea on the table and you’re trying to make a moral argument against it, it’s a mentally tough place to be.
  2. Sometimes, the right thing to do and the “right thing for the business” are very, very different. When this happens, you must ask yourself, what kind of person do I want to be? Who do I want to see when I look in the mirror every morning?
  3. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it isn’t a shitty thing to do. I ran into this a lot in digital marketing. It was perfectly legal to spam the heck out of our email database (as long as you provided a link to unsubscribe), retarget them with creepy ads that followed them everywhere across the Internet, collect a ton of data without their consent, cross-reference it with other data collected without their consent, and use it to serve them even creepier retargeted ads (ahem, I mean relevant, timely, personalized content), all in the name of selling them more shit they didn’t need. Legal? Yes. Shitty thing to do? Also yes.
  4. At some point, you will be asked to cross an ethical line. When (not if) this happens, you will have a very difficult choice to make. I’m not here to judge. Maybe you can’t afford to lose your job. Maybe the opportunity for personal gain is too high. I will just say, decide which lines you’re willing to cross to keep your job, and decide which ones you aren’t. Then draw them. Not in sand. In cement. Because at the end of the day, you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror every morning.
  5. When it’s possible, do your best to eat last. It won’t always be possible. Sometimes, decisions will be made even further above you that reinforce your privilege within the hierarchy. But sometimes, it will be possible. Sometimes, you can sacrifice a new headcount on your team to save a job on someone else’s. Sometimes, you can take the heat for a subordinate’s mistake. Sometimes, you can advocate for an unpopular position. Sometimes, you can even win.

I guess that’s my final point. In today’s corporate culture, trying to be a leader who eats last will always feel like an uphill battle. It’s a feature of our current system, not a bug. I know that sounds discouraging, so I’ll leave you with these words of encouragement:

If being a leader who eats last feels like a constant struggle, it means you’re doing something right.