Simon Sinek’s Advice for the Military’s Sexual Assault Problem

by John Gassman

Simon Sinek is an ethnographer who has written two books on leadership: Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. His books are a study of leaders in action and he often uses military examples to illustrate his points. (In fact, Major General Jimmie Jaye Wells at US Army FORSCOM is using Leaders Eat Last as a part of his Professional Reading Program Forum.)

Simon Sinek is also a TED contributor and his two recorded talks are powerful tools for military leaders. His first talk, recorded in September 2009, is about How Great Leaders Inspire Action. If you haven’t watched it yet, stop reading right now and go watch it. If you ever found yourself looking for a way to explain why commander’s intent is so important, this is the kick-starter you wanted.

His more recent TED talk, titled Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe, holds a mirror up to military leaders and offers some fantastic insights into trust, safety, and teamwork. If you’re looking for a way to talk to your leaders about sexual harassment, equal opportunity, or suicide prevention, this can be a powerful tool to start the conversation.

Simon Sinek

In this talk, Mr. Sinek distills all of the million-dollar words and hours of cheesy videos into one word:  trust.

He explains that in early human history, danger was everywhere, and humans grouped together into “a circle of safety.” Here, group members felt safe to sleep and otherwise drop their guard, knowing that someone else from the group was watching out for danger. This allowed for more creative thought beyond avoiding the next saber-toothed tiger attack.

While watching this video, I immediately thought of the military’s problem of sexual assault and harassment. How can we work together as a team and protect ourselves from outside dangers if some of our own tribe members are making our “circle of safety” unsafe? It became evident to me that solving this problem won’t require additional briefings, acronyms, or even congressional action.

Instead, we as leaders need to make sure that our people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, feel safe within our organizations. It’s all about the environment and as Mr. Sinek says, “If you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do these remarkable things, and more importantly, others have that capacity too.

One of the military examples he uses is a Marine lieutenant who, after letting his men eat first, had no food for himself. Sinek relays that the Marines took food from their own plates to make sure their leader had something to eat. This concept is something that US Army leaders are familiar with, but the psychology behind it may be new to some (it was to me). Mr. Sinek explains:

“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?”

So, what type of organization are you a part of? Do people trust each other? Are those that violate that trust dealt with accordingly? If they don’t and are not, how do you regain that lost trust so that your tribe can focus on external dangers instead of internal ones?

Special thanks to Army Captain John Gassmann for submitting this guest post.

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