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Leadership is about making others feel safe: Simon Sinek at TED2014

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Simon Sinek. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Simon Sinek. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Simon Sinek begins his talk with the story of former U.S. Army Captain William D. Swenson. In 2009, Swenson was on an operation in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, when his column was ambushed. It was bad; many were injured. During this ambush, Swenson called for air support and ran through enemy fire to rescue the wounded. The moment was recorded by a GoPro camera on one of the medic’s helmets. With two comrades, Swenson brought in a severely wounded sergeant to a helicopter for medical evacuation. “You see Captain Swenson bend over and give him a kiss, before he turns around to rescue more,” says Sinek.

Sinek points out this gesture was unusual—and important. It was a leader showing intense care for one of his subordinates. Even love.

“In the military, they give medals to people who sacrifice themselves so that others may gain,” says Sinek. “In business, they give bonuses to people who sacrifice others so that they may gain.”

It’s not that people in the military are inherently better than those in business—it’s just a different environment. And it’s one that values trust and cooperation.

To explain why this in important, Sinek takes us back in time to the beginning of human society, when to mitigate a world full of dangers, “we evolved into social animals that lived together and worked together in what I call a ‘circle of safety.'”

Business, says Sinek—whose TEDxPugetSound talk “How great leaders inspire action” has been viewed 16 million times—is the modern day tribe. The world is still full of dangers and, when people feel safe, they trust and cooperate. When they don’t, they waste time and energy defending themselves from each other.

“The ups and downs of the economy, the uncertainty of the stock market, the new technology that renders your business model obsolete overnight, the competition that is trying to kill you or at a minimum stop your growth and steal your customers—we have no control over these forces. They’re constant and they’re not going away,” says Sinek. “The only variable are the conditions inside the organization. That’s where leadership matters, because it’s the leader who sets the tone. When leaders make a choice to put the people first, remarkable things happen.”

The closest example, says Sinek, is parenting. Good parents work tirelessly to give their children opportunities and to help them achieve more than they imagined for themselves. “Great leaders want exactly the same thing,” says Sinek. “They want to  build self-confidence, to give opportunities to try and fail, all so that they they can achieve more than we could imagine for ourselves.”

He asks a tough question. “If you had hard times in your family, would you ever consider laying off one of your children?”

This, Sinek believes, is why we have such a negative reaction to banking executives who make a ton of money and ruthlessly lay off workers. “It’s not the numbers,” says Sinek. “They have violated this deep-seated social construct. We know they allowed their people to be sacrificed to protect their own interests. Great leaders would never sacrifice the people to save the numbers; they would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people.”

Of course, this isn’t how it has to be in business. Sinek gives the example of a company that created the concept of “lifetime employment” to make employees feel safe, and a CEO who instituted mandatory 4-week furloughs for everyone in the company when times got tough. His rationale: “it’s better for us all to suffer a little than for some to suffer a lot.” Any employees who could do without the income signed up for five weeks, so that others could do three. And morale in the company actually went up.

“Leadership is a choice, not a rank,” says Sinek. Anyone in an organization can be a leader. “It’s choosing to look out for the person on your left and to look out for the person on your right.”

He brings us back to the military, where this concept of leadership is more accepted. He tells the story of an officer who, when rations were tight, insisted that his marines eat before he did. Naturally, there was no food left for him. But his soldiers were so moved by the gesture, that they each brought him a little bit of their food.

“We call them leaders because they go first, because they take the risk before anybody else does, because they will choose to sacrifice so their people will be safe and protected,” says Sinek. “The natural response is that our people will sacrifice for us.”