Simply Eating Last Doesn’t Make You a Great Leader

We’ve all heard the saying, especially those who have served in the military; “leaders eat last.” The concept is simple. Great leaders sacrifice their own comfort–even their own survival in a time of war–for the good of those in their care. It’s a small and simple way to measure the greatness of a leader and yet it’s worth asking yourself why someone is eating last. Is it because they understand it’s the right thing to do as a leader or is it because they’re simply doing what they’ve been told makes a great leader without internalizing service and sacrifice for those in their care.

My wife and I recently had our second child.  While we are thankful and blessed to have a healthy and happy child in our home, we are faced with a great responsibility for her well-being and that of our family’s. While we’ve read many self-help family books and have the advantage of raising a 3-year-old with a degree of success, we wake up every 3 hours at night to feed and change our newborn because it’s for the good of her care despite the sacrifice it has on ourselves. We love her and will do whatever needed to take care of her.

Great leaders have a similar feeling toward their subordinates that good parents have toward their children, even those that aren’t the perfect employees. Taking care of your people should come from an innate desire to do so, rather than an item on your checklist of being a so-called leader.

While watching Meet The Press this morning, I listened as Glenn Beck stated, “great leaders eat last,” while commenting on a certain politician’s leadership qualities. It reminded me that simply eating last doesn’t make someone a great leader; anyone can eat last. The phrase has been used so often anyone who has picked up a leadership book at the airport knows enough to “eat last” at work functions, off sites and happy hours. Understanding why you eat last and applying that selfless approach to every aspect of life is more genuine and effective way to become a great leader.

Ethical, competent and admired leadership is badly needed nowadays and it’s worth noting that not everyone can or should be a leader. So, the next time you hear someone say that great leaders eat last, ask them why. Then look for situations when that leader does or does not sacrifice their own comfort for the good of those in their care. Despite what many people think, simply eating last doesn’t make you a great leader.