Are You a Good Leader According to This TED Talk?

The poet Stephen Crane once wrote:

A man said the the universe
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

So much of life—especially as an employee—is spent wishing for someone in authority over you not only to acknowledge that “I exist!” but also to feel obligated to you—to value you. Research shows that 70 percent of employees are disengaged at work. Disengagement results from unhappiness; unhappiness festers when bosses don’t meet employee needs—or, when bosses feel no sense of obligation.

Some bosses remain skeptical that they have any obligation to their employees other than providing them with a paycheck. Maybe that’s true, but is it right? Does behaving that way make you a leader, or just an authority?

In his TEDtalk entitled “Why Good Leaders Make you Feel Safe,” Simon Sinek lectures on the difference between a leader and an authority. “Leadership is a choice, it is not a rank. I know many people at the senior most levels of organizations who are absolutely not leaders. They are authorities, and we do what they say because they have authority over us. But we would not follow them.” Why would we not follow them? Because, as the Universe said, we create in them no sense of obligation.

Sinek’s talk is a wonderful mix of anecdotes and research. He begins with an example of great, self-sacrificial leadership in the military, and compares it to what he’s seen in business. “In the military they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gian. We have it backwards.”

Great leaders nurture trust and cooperation in their followers. But that’s easier said than done. Sinek goes on, saying, “I can’t simply say to you, ‘trust me,’ and you will. I can’t simply instruct two people to cooperate and they will. It’s not how it works. It’s a feeling. So where does that feeling come from?” He walks to a large pad of paper, and starts writing “DANGER” in the four corners. Back in the early days of man, there were dangers all around, “so we evolved into social animals, where we lived together and worked together in what I call a circle of safety.” Sinek draws a circle in the middle of the danger. “Inside the tribe, where we felt like we belonged. And when we felt safe among our own, the natural reaction was trust and cooperation…it means that I can fall asleep at night and trust that someone within my tribe will watch for danger.”

According to Sinek, the modern day is no different—still full of dangers. “It could be the ups and downs of an economy, the uncertainty of the stock market, it could be a new technology that renders your business model obsolete overnight.” These dangers are a constant, they’re uncontrollable, and they’re not going away. “The only variable are the conditions inside the organization,” insists Sinek, “and that’s where leadership matters. Because it’s the leader that sets the tone. When the leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results so that the people remain safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

Using examples of soldiers, hated CEOs, and beloved CEOs, Sinek backs up his point. He also compares being a good leader to being a parent, nurturing and caring for others, “all so they could achieve more than we could ever imagine for ourselves.”

So what are we going to do? Are we going to be authorities like “the Universe” in the poem, or are we going to listen to Simon Sinek and become the types of leaders others can truly rely on—the types of leaders we would want in a world full of dangers? Because the reality is, if the Universe feels no sense of obligation to the man, then why should the man feel any obligation to the Universe?

If you’re still skeptical of why employers should feel any sense of obligation to their subordinates, I think Sinek’s closing remark drives his point home:  

“We call them leaders because they go first. We call them leaders because they take the risk before anybody else does. We call them leaders because they will choose to sacrifice so that their people may be safe and protected and so their people may gain. And when we do, the natural response is that our people will sacrifice for us. They will give us their blood, and sweat, and tears to see that their leader’s vision comes to life. And when we ask them, “Why would you do that? Why would you give your blood, and sweat, and tears for that person?” they all say the same thing: “Because they would have done it for me.” And isn’t that the organization we would all like to work in?

Maybe my summary hasn’t convinced you of Sinek’s opinion. In that case, I suggest you watch the video and let him make his whole point.

(And here’s Simon’s website, in case you’re interested.)

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