Leaders need not eat at all!

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 in-take of sugar-coated leadership books, blogs, and articles by 50%”

​Greatest Leadership Secrets!

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:

Key Takeaway

​Leadership is a complex in-the-moment performance. ​ ​But ​our behaviors are ​hardwired. Thus getting better requires re-imagining, replacing old, and practicing new. ​Belief in magic ​is ​slows you down. I write this as a coach who ​often faces the challenge of installing new skills.

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

In “Leaders Eat Last” is a book by Simon Sinek. A book inspired, we’re told, by the US Marine Core. Where officers always eat after the underlings. But is this a valid and worthwhile observation?

Believe what you like, but as an executive coach I suggest several reasons, that what the marines do is not so relevant to corporations. Here we go...

​​First, there are a multitude of reasons for leaders to eat separately. And they ​mainly have to do with preserving differentiation and power. (In other words, it's not to be nice, it's to stay superior!)

True reasons leaders eat last or never

  • Top Leaders implicitly manage their interactions and image among the rank and file. Like actors, they project a front. They must maintain appearances that set them apart as smoother, tougher, smarter, and less needy than those below. 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.
  • The very act of eating places one in a socially compromised position. Eaters are vulnerable (distracted). Un-powerful (sitting, chewing, scoping, forking, cutting). At risk for spillage, choking, literally egg on their face. Further, the activity total interferes with posture, expression, and presence leaders prefer. Eating is not a look an officer or executive wishes to expose to the underlings.
  • 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!

​Ok. So more power to the Marines. Executives, not so much. That's not to say leaders should not be considerate, kind and generous, they should. But 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. See, in general we WANT our leaders to receive the perks of position. They are assumed worthy of special treatment. We want our leaders to have status that boosts the standing of our tribe in the world. 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.

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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