Lessons In Leadership

Recently, on my birthday, I had a profound experience.

A BIGGBY COFFEE owner-operator (franchisee) had requested a sit down.

“I need to clear the air,” he told me during a call the day before, “Using the ‘F’ word last week was upsetting to me, my wife and some of my people.”

I agreed to get together with him but had reservations, and even considered canceling. Did I really need a lecture at this point in my life? Was a scolding something I wanted to sit through on my birthday? Nonetheless, out of profound respect for this operator, I stuck with my commitment and showed up to the meeting.

Some background—every year at our annual meeting of owner-operators, we hold an awards dinner which carries tons of energy and excitement. Before we eat, I make a toast. This year, there were approximately 600 people in the room, and my toast mentioned the leadership team and each member specifically. As I introduce one leader, I quoted her—and in the quote she uses the ‘F’ word. I thought I was making it ok by apologizing in advance.

The operator has always been a man I respect. In our history together, he struggled mightily through the early years with his BIGGBY stores, but he worked hard and saw it through. Today, he is very successful within our system—smart, imposing, rugged, straightforward and an all-around character guy. I know that when we talk, it is important, and that he is going to tell me some valuable things I need to hear—both good and bad. This meeting was a case of the latter.

He started right in, letting me know how much my actions in using the ‘F’ word had offended him—but more importantly, how much it had offended his wife and employees. He had prepared for the conversation and read me quotes from each of his employees who were present.

They didn’t understand why the leader of a company should ever feel comfortable using such language.  They felt it was below me and belittled everything else I talked about that evening. Wasn’t I supposed to be an example?

After he read the quotes, the operator simply stated, “We, as leaders, need to be better than that. If my kid’s teacher said that in the classroom, I would be enraged and think they should be fired.”

The worst part of all? I knew I was going to offend. I apologized in advance and did it anyway. It was the worst kind of disrespect: premeditated.

Why did the operator call the meeting? He would have held anyone that works for him accountable for using such language. As a leader, he had to demonstrate to his people that his values applied to everyone—even other leaders. If he didn’t hold me to account, he would be letting down his people and his own values, and hence why I was sitting with him on my 48th birthday getting a lesson in leadership.

This was the perfect present, and a turning point for me. I just published a book with more in the works and am scheduling speaking engagements in the coming months and years. I recognize that to be a leader, you must facilitate the people listening to your words. When I offended this operator, his wife and his people, they weren’t listening anymore—my words fell on deaf ears.

That day, I committed that I would not swear in a public setting again and thanked the operator for taking the time to come meet with me, bring me the insight and alter the course of my future.

I must acknowledge that what the operator did had little to do with me—it wasn’t about scolding me or getting me to change my behavior, it was about him being an authentic leader to his people, his wife and to himself.

I am humbled and honored by his actions.