Officers Eat Last: What burnt hotdogs taught me about being a servant leader.

Obviously, this picture is a horrible example of leadership. Unfortunately, this is how some individuals in leadership roles behave. In 2014, Simon Sinek published a book Leaders Eat Last.  The book was an instant best seller and offers great advice to leaders.  But what does this really mean?  Is it simply that the leader gets last in line to eat or is there a deeper meaning?

Officers Eat Last

When Simon released this book, I could have slapped myself in the face.  In 2014, I had just finished my tenth year in the Marine Corps Reserve and twenty first as an officer of Marines.  In addition to the Marine Corps 14 leadership traits and 11 leadership principles, we were also taught that you always allowed your Marines to eat first.  Woe to the junior officer that jumped in line with the Marines and didn’t wait.  I have seen a few stern, quite, and direct conversations from a senior officer to a junior officer when they violated this principle.  “Officers Eat Last” is so ingrained in Marine Corps culture that it permeates our personal lives as well.

Leadership Lessons

Both of my parents were officers of Marines.  While they were both out when I was born, the leadership lessons and philosophies they lived by in the Marine Corps were instilled in me as a little kid.  Many of them seemed to be a nuisance as an eight-year old, but later in life they made perfect sense.

Recall the last time you were late to a church, company, school, or sports team picnic or banquet.  When you got to the food line what where you left with?  Burnt hotdogs, busted up buns, carrot strings at the bottom of the salad bowl, and chip crumbs.  This was my experience.  However, we were never late.  Remember that both of my parents were former Marines and we were always on time if not early.  But when it was time to eat, my parents always made us go last. Why? Because they were living what they had learned in the Marine Corps.

Servant Leader

What “Leaders Eat Last” or “Officers Eat Last” is really all about is being a “Servant Leader.” This doesn’t mean that you cater to every request of your team.  It doesn’t mean that your team’s needs are above the mission or goal.  And it doesn’t mean that you abdicate responsibility. Many individuals and organizations profess adhering to a servant leader philosophy and let their teams run all over the place. This is obviously no way to run a team, organization, or business. https://strategicleadershipconsulting.com/speaking/

Team Focus

A “Servant Leader” understands that the job doesn’t get done unless his or her people are able to get it done.  They understand that the focus is on the team.  They live it every day, 24/7.  It’s in their heart and soul.  It governs their every action as a leader.  They serve their teams and set them up for success…..not the other way around.  Why do officers eat last, why do leaders eat last?  Because they understand the very simple concept that the sum is greater than the individual parts. That as a leader, you don’t go first to the food line, you don’t go first for praise, the focus is not on you.  It’s on the team.

Humility

The core principal to this philosophy is Humility.  It’s no longer about you.  You put your team first.  Put them in front of yourself.  You ask a lot of questions of your team.  You listen.  You make every effort to understand and see the world through their eyes.  You take interest in their personal and professional development.  You make sure that they have the right tools, training, and guidance to accomplish the goal.  It’s hard and it takes a lot of work initially.  But if you can humble yourself and put the spotlight on your team, sooner than you could imagine they will begin to crush it and as a leader all you will have to do is make minor rudder corrections.  I believe Jim Collins has the concept correct in Good to Great when speaking about Level 5 leaders…….. “They look out the window to apportion credit…..and in the mirror to apportion responsibility.”

Success

Leaders eat last, Officers eat last, be a servant leader.  All of these phrases point to one thing; Put your teams first and set them up for success. Believe me the rest will follow.

Patrick Houlahan

4 Comments

  1. Jack Otteson on January 8, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    As always, insightful and spot on, Patrick. Thanks for posting this. So many leaders think being a leader is about privilege. It’s not.

    • Patrick Houlahan on January 8, 2020 at 6:01 pm

      Jack, I completely agree. Humility is one of the hallmarks of a great leader.

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