Leadership Chemicals: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Some Don't

By Rebecca Geier | Co-Founder and Brand Strategist

As a psychology major whose favorite class in college was Bio Psychology (I know, I’m such a nerd), the talk given at HubSpot’s Inbound Conference last month in Boston by Simon Sinek made me feel like I was 20 again. It reminded me of listening to my professors break down complex psychological topics into very simply terms and apply them to the real-world. In the case of Mr. Sinek, he logically, and biologically, explained that what makes teams tick – or totally break down – all comes down to instinctive human behavior. As leaders, we can all learn from this to create environments that draw out the best in our teams.

Based on his latest book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't, Mr. Sinek began by reminding us that humans are social animals - it's why we've survived for thousands of years. As he is known for in his TED Talks, he used a flip chart on stage to draw out the visual picture of what our fundamental social environments look like.


Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last
Well-known speaker and Hubspot INBOUND keynote presenter Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last, is know for using a flip chart in his TED Talk presentations.


Danger is all around us, and we come together to fight danger. In business, good people in a bad environment can do bad things because they're instinctively wired to protect themselves. Likewise, bad people can do really good things in a good environment because they are socially connected and working together with others. The pivotal difference is “good environment” or “bad environment” – and which type of environment is created – depends on the leader, or leaders.

So how do we, as leaders, create a good environment where more good happens, where people work together to fight for the company? Mr. Sinek says it all comes down to creating an environment where our two “selfish” chemicals – endorphins and dopamine – are inactive, and our two “selfless” chemicals – serotonin and oxytocin – are in full gear. Using the acronym, EDSO, he explained how each works, and then, when we thought our biopsychology lesson had concluded, he introduced a fifth chemical he called the BIG SELFISH one. We’ll get to that…but first, EDSO.

A biological take on leadership.

Selfish Chemicals: Endorphins and Dopamine (ED)
Mr. Sinek explained briefly what stimulus activates each of these chemicals, starting with endorphins. Endorphins mask physical pain. I heard about endorphins early on in my running career as the high I’d get after a certain amount of time/miles on the road. While I never really experienced it, I know many others who have – it’s the "runner’s high." Another example was the caveman’s work to go hunt.

Dopamine is the chemical that’s activated when you find something you’ve been looking for, complete your to-do list, or hit a strike in bowling. It’s when the caveman finds the food. It tells us to stay focused and keep moving forward. And as visual animals, we like to see the end goal, such as the mile markers along a road race.

There are benefits to these chemicals – it kept the caveman hunting, and keeps the exhausted marathoner focused on the finish line. However, it can have its downsides in business. If your company’s culture is metrics and performance-driven to the point where it’s acceptable to sacrifice others to make the numbers, likely you are creating an environment that activates these two selfish chemicals. In these environments, tribal trust is broken and we’re left with a focus on the individual performer, not the company as a whole. You may make the numbers, but nothing more.

Selfless Chemicals: Serotonin and Oxytocin (SO)
Mr. Sinek then explained the good chemicals. First serotonin. This chemical is activated when you’re feeling valued, feeling pride. He gave a great example of this with college graduation. Universities could just send an email with your college degree attached as a PDF. But instead, we do commencements, our friends and family come, and graduates start to feel really good. Parents even get a boost of serotonin too because they are proud. In turn, the kids' desire to make their parents, and others, proud is driven by serotonin.

quote: "A person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected."

Serotonin also comes into play when we look out for others. When we do this, others in turn look out for us. In relation to this, and in a business environment, Mr. Sinek calls serotonin the “leadership chemical” because it says “I would go out of my way for you without asking anything in return.”

In companies that embody this leadership style in their culture, it is one where the company’s leaders are generous, set the tone, and follow the spirit of the Marines motto, “Officers eat last." In this culture, leadership is viewed as a responsibility, not a rank, and others become generous and feel responsible for their colleagues and the company.

The other selfless chemical is oxytocin, which Mr. Sinek describes as the chemical that’s activated when we experience friendship, trust, and even physical touch, and reinforces a relationship and trust. It’s also activated through acts of kindness, including simple gestures such as writing a hand-written letter instead of sending an email. Even though the exact same words can be in both letters, the handwritten one means more because the receiver knows it took more effort.

In businesses, oxytocin is powerful because it fosters generosity. And even better – you can get oxytocin by witnessing an act of kindness. When leaders are generous, trustworthy, and kind, it sets the tone, and others become generous too. In this type of generous, high-trust environment, “selfless” serotonin and oxytocin chemicals run high, leaders rise up to look out for their team, and in turn, people feel valued. The result: magic…and company performance far exceeding what individuals working only toward their specific goals can achieve.

the "selfless chemicals" make you feel happy and safe.

The BIG SELFISH one – Cortisol
After explaining EDSO, Mr. Sinek threw out a 5th really big, selfish chemical we need to watch out for. That is, cortisol. Cortisol is activated by stress, and is designed to keep us alive in danger. It’s the first phase of fight or flight. It causes your heart rate to rise, puts glucose into your muscles, heightens your senses, and makes you paranoid to “find the danger, find the danger.”

In business environments with little or no trust, we humans are on the lookout for danger, keeping files on issues just in case things go wrong, sending CYA emails, etc. In highly metrics-driven organizations, we stay on high alert – we know if we don’t hit our numbers, we may lose our job. We not only have ED selfish chemicals activated, but moreover, cortisol – we are on alert, ready to fight, sacrifice others, and – most damaging – trust no one.

Fight FOR Each Other
The less we fight and flight from danger from each other and the more we sacrifice for each other, the more we’ll all fight for each other. We’ll experience the selfless chemicals that make us happy, safe, and trusting of others, versus the selfish ones that make us focused on survival and sacrificing others.

quote: "A leader is someone people follow not because they have to but because they want to."

At TREW, our motto (and the founding of our company name) is Trust Drives Results. Hearing this talk was inspiring and reinforcing. We are working hard to create a selfless culture at TREW – one that makes it fun to work here and, as a result, delivers outstanding outcomes for our customers. As a business and people leader, I was inspired by this, and hope others are too. Thank you, Mr. Sinek!


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Rebecca Geier

Co-Founder and Brand Strategist

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