This concept is based on the United States Marine Corps' practice of placing the needs of your Marines before you own. When a unit in the Marine Corps is conducting training or deployed abroad, they will eat their meals together as a team; from the most senior officer to the youngest enlisted Marine. In this environment, one might think that those senior leaders would get their food first, but it is the exact opposite. The call will come out for the lowest rank to line up for chow, and taking it a step further, the most senior Marines present serve their subordinates. This selfless act shows the Marines that their leadership cares about them and that if there is a shortage on food, they will be the ones to go without eating. This also allows the leaders to see and talk to all of the Marines as they make their way through the chow line, assessing their physical and mental wellbeing which can be deteriorated in extreme training or combat conditions.
This simple gesture can have a profound impact on the way a team interacts. In the Marine Corps, it is an honor and privilege to serve those junior to your own rank. While allowing others to eat first is just one small example of this, it can be used in many facets of leadership. Placing the needs of the team before your own breaks down the mentality of, "I am senior to you, so I have more privileges," and replaces it with, "My seniority comes with more responsibilities, and it is my charged duty to take care of my teammates and ensure their success." Through this, an atmosphere is fostered in which the team trusts one another and feel like they belong. When the team cares for each other, they don't feel threatened from within and can focus their energy on common goals.
This simple idea is not so simple to implement. It requires a mindset shift from self preservation to team preservation. This includes those times when everyone is tired and everything seems to be falling apart. It might be best to implement in the little things you do to start developing the habit. It can be consistently showing up to appointments 5 minutes early, asking the team if they would like a drink when you are making a run to the store, asking what you can do to help or support the team, volunteering to work the extra hour, or giving the credit for success to the team while assuming responsibility when the team fails.
Based on Simon Sinek's book "Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't"
Check out these great links which can help you dive a little deeper into running the Leaders Eat Last practice with your team, customers or stakeholders.