The Cafeteria COO: How to Lead

“Hello, how are ‘ya?”

“Good to see you!”

“Hey, it’s been a while.”

That’s how lunch went in the dining establishment that was so fancy, so ritzy, that even the napkins were flecked with gold.

As I dined with the top officer of a blue chip insurance firm you would surely know by name (um, if you’re curious, they’re “on your side”), it seemed everyone around us knew him.

We were chatting about the “Personal Accountability and the QBQ!” presentation I’d just completed, and where to take the message of the QBQ! book next inside the organization.

When it was time to leave, we stood, turned toward the front door, stepped slightly to the right, and ….

placed our plastic meal trays on the rubber conveyor belt rolling unceasingly to the kitchen.

I lied. We weren’t at a swanky place. We were in the company cafeteria, using plastic forks and plates—and napkins that were definitely not gold flecked.

In both Outstanding! 47 Ways to Make Your Organization Exceptional and Parenting the QBQ Way (our books), we teach this:

[Tweet “Humility is the cornerstone of leadership.”]

No need to use words to define that phrase, since I just gave you a picture of humility worth ten thousand words.

I do wish, though, that I could describe the faces of the people the COO acknowledged in that cafeteria. I am positive each one was thinking …

What a nice man. He knows who I am. That feels good. I like working here.

When I asked Mr. COO what it’s like to eat where absolutely everyone who walks by knows who you are, he said,

“This is where I should be, and need to be. It’s a chance for people to come up and say, ‘What we need to do more of is  … ’ and ‘Hey, we should be …. !’”

Huh. Humble and smart. Getting ideas from the people who do the real work. But that’s another blog someday …

Coach Chuck Knoll, who won four NFL Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, just passed away at 82. Former players report that in training camp following each championship season, he would say, “You can put your Super Bowl ring up on the shelf now because there’s nothing you did last year that’s going to win you a starting spot this year.”

Strong words, that probably needed to be heard by professional athletes. Through these words, Coach Knoll delivered a powerful lesson in humility to his players.

Through his actions, our cafeteria COO delivers a powerful example of humility to his people.

Leadership … it’s not complicated.


In what ways have you seen leaders demonstrate humility? 

How will you apply this lesson in being humble?

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11 Responses

  1. John,

    To me, this is the most important part of being a leader – being humble! One of the best lessons I learned was from a manager who told me a person’s character can be measured by how he (or she) treats everyone – even those who can’t do any “favors” for them (help them rise up the career ladder).

    This story drives that point home. I always make a point of saying hello to everyone whether that be a supervisor, co-worker, custodian, mail carrier, or the guy who works at the corner store. I’ve educated my kids to do the same. That’s what humility is all about!

  2. To me, the greatest leadership example is Jesus Christ. He was fully in charge. Yet, he washed the feet of his team. Nothing was beneath him. He modeled humility and gave us the example. Not just words, but actions. When we know our people and connect with them, they are far more willing to be led.

  3. In 1983 I was running a Wal-mart store in Ada. OK. It had snowed 10 inches the night before and needless to say, there were many associates that decided to stay home. A little after 9:00 that morning I received a call from a lady saying she was Sam Walton’s secretary and he would be landing at about 11:30 and I needed to pick him up. My first reaction was it was a friend of mine pulling a joke on me. It wasn’t and around 11:45 a small plane landed at the airport and Sam got out in his hunting coveralls. We went to the store and toured the floor. He then returned to the front counter, grabbed up a phone and proceeded to thank all the associates for their hard work in making the store a profitable success story. He then ask me if I wanted to eat lunch, like I would say no. He grabbed 2 cans of tuna and a box of crackers off the phone isle and we proceeded to go to the employee lounge to chow down on this spectacular feast.

    I then carried Sam back to the airport and off he went. He flew himself and no one ever knew where he might land unannounced. I had the pleasure of him visiting my store in El Paso about a year and a half later and the visit went the same except this time we had coffee. He was truly a great leader and an inspiration to those who worked for him. His compassion and drive is what focus the employees on making Wal-Mart #1. May he rest in peace.

  4. John, I would agree the COO showed humility. I don’t think the coach sent a message of humility. I think he sent a message that the players don’t matter. What people did in the past does not matter. If they don’t produce today, they are gone. There is no respect for the player.

    1. Harley, thanks. I know what you’re getting at, but I do believe professional players need to be treated a little firmer and that’s what the coach did. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I work for a man who demonstates humility every day. He will get on the forklift, open the garage door for me, and do whatever. He once told me that he does not tell anyone that he is the owner…he just does the work. Humility is definitely one of the big characteristics that can make an organization “fly”.

  6. I worked for a wonderful man for 10 years, who to me, was by far as humble a leader I have known in all my career years. We worked for a large company that had to be physically inventoried once a year. All branches of the company came to town, and all were required to participate for a 48 all or nothing inventory count. He had to lead these grumpy people through 2 of the longest days. One year we bought him a gladiator costume, complete with the sash, sword and helmet. He wore that outfit through the entire warehouse, calling out, “I AM Spartacus!!” Everyone who saw him forgot the situation we were in, and laughed at him, with him, whatever it took. Took all the ribbing about his boney knees…and we all walked away with a deeper respect for him…expecially me.

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