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Book Review: "Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't", by Simon Sinek

All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren't meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which eventually you will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you. Because you only ever deserved a Styrofoam cup.

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I can't believe it's been like 6 months since I last read a book and published a book review here. Work has been incredibly busy. But I have a week and a half off for Christmas and New Year's, and so I decided to take some time and start reading again. A bit of light reading, some non-technical nonfiction by this guy named Simon Sinek.

I think this book came by recommendation by a life coach hired by my company; I purchased these books a few months ago and haven't opened them until now. This book is a refreshing viewpoint on leadership and what it's meant to be. I think it does a really good job in terms of portraying what makes teams cohesive in fundamentally solid terms.

It's also relevant since the data engineering team at my company has scaled from just me to myself + mid-level FTE + junior-level FTE + manager + product manager

  • 5 software contractors, and I'm the only senior IC among them. We also have plans to create an engineering division for data by end of next year. Scaling a team and a division isn't something I've done before, and so I think it's pertintent to read books on effective leadership.

Some of the lessons I really liked are:

  • Seeing people for the humans they are: Understanding that people are primal beings, driven by chemicals like endorphins (selfish, to mask physical pain), dopamine (selfish, the good feeling), serotonin (selfless, the leadership hormone), and oxycotin (selfless, the friendship / deep trust hormone), is something Sinek portrays quite well. There's also cortisol, the stress hormone; Sinek mentions how great teams look to release selfless feel-good chemicals much more so than selfish feel-good chemicals, and keep cortisol to a minimum.

    I very much agree that people are primal beings. Ignoring our emotions is one mistake I made that cost me dearly when I was younger. When you think about it, it's pretty straightforward; you can have all the smarts in the world, but if you don't want to get out of bed in the morning, none of that really matters.

  • Observe and enlarge the circles of safety: “Circles of Safety” is a concept Sinek uses to describe who is “in” and who is “out”. As a social species, we tend to have a particular “tribe” we want to belong to. The wider that is, the more belonging we feel; the smaller it is, the less belonging and more afraid we feel.

    I find this highly insightful. I think trust is the foundational keystone to building a great team; I've noticed that when I've stopped trusting somebody, my mind tends to think not about the state space of what makes sense, but rather what is possible to be done by a certain individual. You can scope that state space to the things immediately in front of you, but it's little comfort. Conversely, when I actively listen and say “I hear you, I acknowledge your concern is important, let's see what we can do to address it” and my trust is rewarded, I get a pretty big rush of oxycotin. I live for the natural high.

    I think one thing I've noticed is the official and unofficial circles of safety. For example, a manager might have a mandate to take care of their team, and on paper have that circle of safety, but if that manager doesn't do their job, then that circle of safety doesn't exist in real life. It does start from the top, honestly.

  • We need challenge in our lives to make life worth living: I think Sinek masks this with millenial-bashing and politicking somewhat, but the point is clear enough to me. Without challenge, without growth, we begin to rot from the inside. Going in a direction, any direction in the generally positive method, allows us to check and refine our emotional and psychological compasses, and exercises our mental muscles. That's why I like reading :) I like having a wall to push against, and I find seeking out new things to do to be very exciting.

    I think one leadership principle I communicate to members of my team is “I'll never ask you to do anything I'm not willing to do myself.” A lot of the job they're doing I've already done, and what's boring for me is interesting for them, and that makes things easy to delegate and for them to trust my judgment in difficult situations. I do acknowledge I do a lot of things (change my own engine oil, go skydiving, etc.), but I think it makes it morally easier for me to ask others to do hard things too and to push others.

Overall, I think these things run in cycles. Bad times create strong people, strong people create good times, good times create weak people, weak people create bad times. I think right now we're in the “weak people create bad times” phase, and so it's just up to us to rise to meet the challenge.

I also like thinking about “happiness as a metric”. The problem with most metrics is that you tend to measure and overfit on them, and then it ceases to be a good metric; but happiness is useful in and of itself, and is incredibly difficult to overfit (e.g. “one glass of wine will make you happy, one bottle of wine will make you an unhappy alcoholic”). I want to be happy and I want people on my team to be so too.