“Leadership is a choice, not a rank,” says Simon Sinek in his Ted Talk, “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe.” In a world full of uncertainty and the unknown, feeling safe is a vital component to any functioning society – especially when that society is the workplace.
“If employees don’t feel safe, they spend their time and energy protecting themselves from each other,” says Sinek. An anxious work environment will pit employees against each other. A form of anarchy reigns with understandably detrimental consequences to productivity and morale. Any free time is spent looking for the new job they think they may need soon.
On the other hand, Sinek points out that, “remarkable things happen” when leaders put the wellbeing of their employees before their own. Being a great leader is like being a parent. You want to provide opportunity, self-confidence and education to those in your care. “When people feel safe, their natural reaction is to trust and cooperate.” Without having to look over their shoulders continuously, workers can be more productive, actively engage in helping each other, or take the initiative on behalf of the company rather than their own. A common good arises out of a sort of social contract made possible by good leadership.
Sinek continues that leadership comes with the responsibility of protecting those people in their charge. “Great leaders would never sacrifice their people to save the numbers. They would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people.”
As an example, Sinek mentions the manufacturing company, Barry-Wehmiller, which was hit hard by the 2008 recession and needed to save $10 million. The company’s CEO and Board agreed that rather than laying off employees, they would give them the option of taking 4 weeks of unpaid vacation at a time of their own choosing. But the CEO’s delivery of the message was the most important part. The policy would apply to everyone, including himself. Morale shot up. Employees traded unpaid vacations in order to make sure each one of them would be taken care of. The company saved $20 million, twice as much as it originally targeted.
Sinek proposes that in business we often violate the very definition of leadership – a deep-seated social contract— and offers this perspective. “…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 gain. We have it backwards. Right?”
He asks the audience, “Would anyone be offended if we gave a $150 million bonus to Gandhi?”