Why good leaders make you feel safe

17 Feb 2018 in Business

This is a TED talk from Simon Sinek focusing on leadership

Captain William Swanson

Simon starts by telling a story about Captain Swanson, who was awarded the congressional medal of honour for his actions in September 2009 in Afghanistan.

Whilst protecting group of Afghan government officials on way to meeting with village elders, he ran in to live fire to rescue the wounded and retrieve the dead. One of the people he rescued was a sergeant, and the entire thing was captured by a medevac pilot with a GoPro on his head. Captain Swanson put the wounded soldier in the medevac, gave him a kiss then turned back to help others.

Where do people like that come from?

What makes people run back in to live fire to help others? It's deep, deep emotion that makes people risk everything to help others.

So, why don't I work with people like that? Well:

In the military, they give medals to people who will sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain

Simon's initial conclusion was that some people are just better humans than others. That’s why they’re attracted to the military, attracted to public service. However, this wasn't quite right - it's actually all in the environment. If you get the environment right, each of us has the capacity to do these things (and most importantly, other people do too). He asked lots of people who are willing to sacrifice themselves why they did it. They all said the same thing: "I did it because they would have done it for me", they felt a deep sense of trust and cooperation.

Trust and cooperation are feelings, not instructions. You can’t instruct someone to trust you, and you can’t instruct two people to cooperate. It's an environment that has to be built and nurtured.

Where does that feeling of trust come from?

Let's go back 50,000 years to the Palaeolithic era. The world was filled with danger, lots of things working together to kill us. We evolved in to social animals, we formed tribes, we felt safe in our groups, we had a circle of safety.

When we felt safe amongst our own, the natural reaction was trust and cooperation. I can fall asleep at night and trust that someone from my tribe is there to watch for danger. If I don’t trust you, it means you won’t watch for danger, which is a bad system for survival.

The modern day is exactly the same thing, full of danger. The world is full of things that frustrate our lives or reduce our opportunity for success. The ups and downs of the economy. The risk of the stock market. It could be a new technology that makes your business obsolete overnight, or it could be competitors who are trying to frustrate your growth and steal business from you. We have no control over these forces. They’re a constant and they’re not going away.

The only variable is the conditions inside the organisation, inside the circle of safety. Inside your tribe. That’s where leadership matters - the leader sets the tone. When the leader is willing to put the organisation first, to sacrifice their comforts, sacrifice the tangible results so that the people feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.

Be a great (leader|parent)

The closest analogy to being a great leader is being a great parent. We want to give our child opportunities, education, discipline when necessary, all so that they can grow and achieve more than we could imagine for ourselves. Great leaders want the same thing. Provide people with opportunities, education, discipline, build their self confidence, give them the opportunity to try and fail so that they can achieve more than we could imagine for ourselves.

Charlie Kim (Next Jump, NYC) says:

If you had hard times in your family, would you consider laying off one of your children?

We’d never do it, so why do we consider laying off people inside our organisation? If you get a job at Next Jump, you can’t get fired for performance issues. If you have issues, they will coach you and give you support, just like we would with our children who come home with a C from school.

This is why people hate bankers. It’s not the numbers, it’s the fact that they allowed their coworkers to be sacrificed to get their bonus. It’s the fact that they may have sacrificed those coworkers themselves to get a bonus. They’ve violated the social contract of safety. Would anyone be angry if we gave a bonus of $150 million to Gandhi? $250m to Mother Teresa? Not at all.

Great leaders will never sacrifice people to save the numbers. Great leaders will sacrifice the numbers to save the people

We're all in it together

In 2008, a Barry-Wehmiller was hit hard by the recession. Like so many companies today, the board got together and discussed layoffs. Their CEO Bob Chapman refused and worked with employees to create a furlough programme. Every employee was required to take 4 weeks of unpaid leave. They could take it whenever they wanted, and it didn’t have to be consecutive. He announced it by saying "Better that we should all suffer a little, rather than any of us suffering a lot".

From a place of trust and cooperation, people started trading. Those that could afford it more started trading with those that could afford it less. Some would take 5 weeks, so that others only had to take 3

Leadership is a choice, it is not a rank

There are many people in the most senior positions at companies, but they are not leaders, they are authorities. We do what they say because they have authority over us, but we would not follow them. There are many people at the bottom of an organisation who are definitely leaders. They have chosen to look after the person to the left of them and the person to the right of them. This is what a leader is.


I think Sinek summarised it best

Leadership is a choice, it is not a rank

Building a culture of support is the primary job of a leader. They are enablers, not authorities. Make it possible for people to do great work and you'll be amazed at what happens.

In fact, this reminds me of one of my favourite tweets of all time

Most people see management as an authority role, but it's not. It's a service role.

-- Sarah Mei (@sarahmei) February 17, 2017