Fedor Zhdanov, Head of ML at Toloka AI

CTech’s Book Review: Exploring the traits that leaders should possess

Fedor Zhdanov, Head of Machine Learning at Toloka, shares insights after reading "Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek

Fedor Zhdanov is the Head of Machine Learning at Toloka, a company that offers a data collection and labeling platform, adaptive ML models, and technologies to support data-related processes across the machine learning lifecycle. He has joined CTech to share a review of "Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek
Title: "Leaders Eat Last” Author: Simon Sinek Format: Book Where: Home

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Fedor Toloka BiblioTech
Fedor Toloka BiblioTech
Fedor Zhdanov, Head of ML at Toloka AI
(Photo: Fedor )

The book was written in 2014 by Simon Sinek, a very popular writer and presenter on the topics of leadership and corporate goals.
Key ideas and the logic flow are described clearly. Our need for hierarchy, leadership, and performance is rooted in our biology - endorphins and hormones (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and cortisol). Understanding some details of how these chemicals work - the reduction of repetitive dopamine satisfaction; the side effects of cortisol on the immune system and feeling of safety; the benefits of public recognition on the brain releasing serotonin; generation of oxytocin around the people we feel safe with, and love, - basically influences the next conclusions the author draws about how to build a great leadership style.
As a result of this connection of personal states to the chemical processes in their bodies, Simon proposes to pay attention to the following important leadership qualities. First, and foremost, the feeling of safety created by the leader. Second, the culture they and primarily they, not their subordinates, create around them. Third, the sense of responsibility and empathy for others (even taking it as far as to treat their employees as the leaders’ “family”), and the sense of building trust through integrity and fairness. Finally, the dangerous effects of the “quick fix” mentality and short-term thinking. The book concludes by emphasizing that long-term focus is essential for every true leader.
Important Themes:
Based on physical processes in the body, what are the key traits and behaviors that leaders should possess and express? This is the key question the book tackles. Out of a plethora of qualities that differentiate good leaders from not-so-good ones, Simon focuses on the feeling of safety created for the followers. This drastically differs from commonly used carrot-stick approaches and also contradicts other frequent practices of regularly creating the “not-good-enough” impression to “motivate” employees to work more efficiently.
Another important theme throughout the book is the culture, created primarily and first of all by the leader, of trust, integrity, and honesty. This, in turn, leads to the expressions of ownership by the team and colleagues, with demonstrative examples of hotel staff helping guests in a terrorist attack, and several others. Examples of the leaders’ behavior leading to the culture of trust include taking responsibility for mistakes and praising the team for successes, as well as limiting difficult conversations to a 1-1 setting but sharing wins with a wider audience.
Finally, Simon talks about the over-focus in the current work culture on the “quick fix” mentality and short-term thinking. From my own experience, this often comes from the addiction to easy solutions which do happen from time to time but have no guarantee to exist for many problems, as well as from the unwillingness to bet on a certain approach to minimize personal career risks. What differentiates a good leader is bravery and willingness to take those risks and responsibility for the result.
What I’ve Learned:
It was almost mind-opening for me that some behaviors of good leaders are not only “commonly known as good”, but can be grounded in the physical nature of the human body. This connection brings these behaviors much more importance, in my eyes, than just sharing good and bad practices, which vary almost as much as there are different opinions in this world.
Another lesson is that treating employees almost like family is a good way to grow one’s leadership style, and keep employees “safe”. Thinking about “resources” for delivering a goal is very easy for planning but also misses the key point of trust between the leaders and the people who follow them.
One of the common fallacies the book tries to rely upon is a rather loose interpretation of how hormone changes influence our psychological state and how our actions or actions of other people affect the state of hormones and other chemicals. Even though there is a body of scientific evidence showing that correlations exist between the levels of hormones, the emotional states of the individuals, and how some actions lead to the brain reacting to those actions, this connection is hardly exact. Thus, some might argue that the connection with the chemical processes in our brains is made by the author for purely the purpose of convincing the reader rather than describing how the processes actually work.
The most significant miss of the book, however, in my opinion, is the lack of strategies to deal with bad performance. Creating the feeling of safety, building a culture of trust, and focusing on the long-term are all good strategies to deal with good actors. However, there are no suggestions from the book on how to deal with individuals who are not striving for the best but rather optimizing for their own benefit only. Neither are there ideas on how to find different approaches to different individuals to bring out the best in them.
Who Should Read This Book:
Those from starting to lead teams to those who are already building large organizations will benefit from reading this and refocusing their attention on creating a feeling of safety and bonding with their employees. I’ve seen a lot of examples of good focuses from a team leader, to bad focuses from high-level builders of multiple organizations, thus certainly the themes Simon emphasizes in this book can be useful for a lot of leaders in all types of organizations.
First published: 15:53, 30.08.22