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Simon Sinek: How Extraordinary Leaders Evolve

Leadership writer and top TED speaker Simon Sinek explains how great leaders create a "circle of safety" for their teams.
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Simon Sinek doesn't have the second-most-watched TED talk for nothing. His speech on "How great leaders inspire action," based on his signature concept of starting with "why," is currently at more than 11.5 million views. (Sinek later distilled his TED talk into this briefer video for Inc.) But the author and speaker is now investigating something new: what he calls the "circle of safety."

In this exclusive Inc. interview, Sinek explains how he arrived at his new thinking and how it applies to leaders today. But his real goal? He hopes to inspire everyone who reads it to immediately take action toward feeling more fulfilled. 

Your new book deals in part with the evolutionary roots of leadership. What lessons can modern-day leaders take from their ancestors?

I looked at the Paleolithic era, when homo sapiens first started walking. We lived in relatively small populations, and the only way that we could survive the dangers was if we worked together; everything about the human animal is designed to work together. That's what human beings do. We're really good at looking after each other when the conditions are right.

Leaders are the ones who control the environment. It’s not about hiring great people. All of this top-grading and promoting the top ten percent and getting rid of the bottom 25 percent ... it's bullshit. All it does is destroy the organization, because it means that nobody feels safe. It's terrible, absolutely terrible, based on biology.

The leaders control the circle of safety. To be the leader, you have to belong to our tribe. We have to feel like you serve us, and we would happily serve you.

A "circle of safety" makes sense in a literal way for our ancestors, but how does that apply in a business?

I've been visiting some amazing organizations that seemed to defy all logic, that didn't have layoffs in the bad economy--a tech company in NYC, a manufacturing company in the Midwest, the Marine Corp. boot camp.

I noticed a pattern: Inside all these organizations, the people who work there feel safe. They feel that the person to the left of them and the person to the right would protect them if something happened. We always confront danger every day, in life and in business. When we feel safe, remarkable things start to happen.

How can a leader use this idea of safety to improve his or her businesses?

Actions speak louder than words. All companies say they care, right? But few actually exercise that care. The cost of leadership is self-interest. It might actually mean you have slower growth over the short term. It might mean you have to take less money in a bad economy.

So what about when the circle of safety fails? What can a leader do if there's the modern-day business equivalent of a saber-tooth tiger attack?

The leader controls the perimeter. In a poorly-run organization, the CEO usually puts the circle of safety only around the senior executives. If you're in the senior level, you're fine. The board gives the CEO a raise while at the same time, thousands of people get laid off. A good leader will send that circle right to the very edges of the company. And it will extend out to loyal customers.

What can someone do to be a better leader? What if they're a manager rather than a CEO?

Leadership has one definition: leaders are willing to sacrifice themselves for their people. As a senior leader you have to extend the circle wider, and if you have 3 people that work for you, your job is to work for them.

Real leaders are the very few willing to sacrifice themselves for their people. When they do, we will do anything to see that our leader's visions are advanced.

That’s why we call them leaders: they go first.

Simon Sinek will be speaking at a full-day Q&A session sponsored by Inc. on August 15 at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, New York.

IMAGE: Staff Sgt. Torin Olsen / WestPointBand / Flickr.com
Last updated: Jul 31, 2013




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