A Lesson on Leadership by Danny Meyer

Life presents us with a constant series of opportunities to learn and grow and improve. Life’s a constant growth opportunity and we can choose to listen and grow and move towards success, or we can ignore these lessons. If we ignore life’s lessons, life gives us different flavors of the same challenge over and over until we choose to listen and learn.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a business owner is what my role is as a leader. Many people have written of this, but the person that I connected with the most was Danny Meyer in his book Setting the Table. Here’s an excerpt from his book…

 ”During one of his uncannily well-timed, impromptu visits to Union Square Café when I was still in my twenties, Pat Cetta sat down at a table with me and indulged my need to fret about the travails of managing my staff. I bemoaned the fact that I was failing to get any kind of consistent message across to my staff members regarding standards of excellence. Waiters and managers (at least half of whom were older than I) were continually testing me and pushing the limits, and this was driving me crazy.

“If you choose to get upset about this, you are missing the boat, lovah,” Pat said with reassuring calm, in his indelible New York accent. Then he gave me a demonstration that has become integral to the way I view management. Pat Cetta’s simple lesson has helped me navigate through years of challenging moments as I’ve worked to encourage our team to build and sustain standards of excellence, especially when we’re growing.

Pat pointed to the set table next to us. “First,” he said, “I want you to take everything off that table except for the saltshaker. Go ahead! Get rid of the plates, the silverware, the napkins, even the pepper mill. I just want you to leave the saltshaker by itself in the middle.” I did as he said, and he asked, “Where is the saltshaker now?”

“Right where you told me, in the center of the table.”

“Are you sure that’s where you want it?” I looked closely. The shaker was actually about a quarter of an inch off center. “Go ahead. Put it where you really want it,” he said. I moved it very slightly to what looked to be smack-dab in the center. As soon as I removed my hand, Pat pushed the saltshaker three inches off center.

“Now put it back where you want it,” he said. I returned it to dead center. This time he moved the shaker another six inches off center, again asking, “Now where do you want it?”

I slid it back. Then he explained his point. “Listen, luvah. Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That’s their job. It’s the law of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: that’s what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like to you. And if you’re ever willing to let them decide where the center is, then I want you to give them the keys to the store. Just give away the fuckin’ restaurant!”

What is your favorite lesson on leadership?


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