Leaders need not eat at all! (No Apologies to Simon Sinek)

It's February and 10% of the year is gone. Remember your New Year’s resolutions? No matter. Here’s a resolution that’s painless and all upside:

Resolved: In the following year, I’ll reduce my consumption of sugar-coated leadership books, blogs, and articles by 50%

Greatest Leadership
Secrets Here!
(really?)


Not 100% because we all need some sugary hope!

Leadership sugar comes in several flavors. Before consuming ask yourself:

Is this piece click bait? A fad? A pitch for a single magic-wand?  Just stop. The time and distraction are not worth it. Worse, all the sugar-based advice we’re fed daily conceals the truth.

In the spirit of sugar reduction, let’s visit one of the sacred cows of sweetness.

Leaders Eat Last” is a book by Simon Sinek of "Start with Why" fame. A book inspired, we’re told, by the US Marine Core. Where officers always eat after the underlings. A servant-leader(ish) suggestion to put needs of underlings first. Valid? Somewhat but not completely. Eisenhower didn't storm the beach at Normandy and Steve Jobs never worked the iPod assembly line. How about in the literal sense? Not really, and the reasons (in corporations) are interesting. Because...

The main concerns are preserving differentiation and power. (Not to be nice, but to stay superior!)

True reasons leaders eat last or never

  1. Top Leaders implicitly manage interactions and image among the rank and file. Like actors, they project a front, maintaining appearances that mark them as smoother, tougher, smarter, and less needy than underlings. Ideally leaders would not need to eat at all. So the fact that leaders need to eat, dress, toilet, etc. are inconvenient truths. Going last helps minimize this intrusion of reality into ideals. Check out the milestone book (top ten of the 20th century)  in social science that addresses this question, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
  2. The very act of eating places one in a socially compromised position. Eaters are vulnerable (distracted) and very un-powerful (sitting, chewing, scooping, forking, cutting). They're also at risk for spillage, choking, and literally having egg on their face. Further, the activity totally interferes with the posture, expression, and presence leaders prefer. Eating is not a look an officer or executive wishes to expose to the underlings. Demonstrated courtesy Groundhog Day. 
  3. The illusion of control and responsibility. When "troops" eat and leaders stand aside and watch, it’s easy to unconsciously attribute them with ‘causing’ the meal to appear. Along with that goes the idea that leaders don’t care about food – they’re not like you and me! That’s why they’re the leaders and you’re not!

So carry on Marines! Executives, not so much. Sure leaders should act considerate, kind and generous. Just not by sharing the chow line. This finding goes back at least a few years...

​Lila MacLellan​​​​​ -

July 25, 2016

In 1969, Vogue’s Book of Etiquette offered this piece of advice about eating at the office: "Don’t do it!"

​“...Even though he may have the most polished of manners, a human being eating is not a particularly attractive sight. A brilliant actor or actress can transform the activity into an engrossing spectacle, but few of us possess such talent!

In fact, having a leader sacrifice sends a disquieting message.  In a typical (not life or death) organization, we WANT our leaders to receive the perks of position. They are assumed worthy of special treatment. Leaders that boost the status of our tribe. Steve Jobs had his black Mercedes. And from coast to coast, we call it the C- Suite for a reason!

If you see your CEO carrying a brown bag lunch you begin to wonder if he’s up for the job. (Smarter to hide the bag: “The guy never even eats lunch, he’s a tiger!")

Bottom line: If you aspire to leadership, eat discretely or not at all.

And remember, please reduce your leadership sugar this year!

Bigger Takeaway

Leadership is in-the-moment performance.  But those behaviors are hardwired. Thus improvement requires re-imagining, replacing old, and practicing new.

Learn more in Geoff Colvin's book "Talent is Overrated."  

Roy Terry

Roy Terry is the founder and principal consultant for Words & Presence, a leadership training and coaching practice in Silicon Valley, California.

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