The Leader as Witness

My mother is north of 100 years old and still active. She resides in an assisted living facility in a tiny town in South Georgia. With Mother’s Day approaching, my wife and I treated my mother to lunch at an old-fashioned barbeque restaurant in a nearby town that sported one traffic light, two gas stations, and five churches.  

Now, before I go any further, you should know this geographical area is ground zero for the Bible belt in its purest form. Almost all residents are unabashedly faith-based. “Have a nice day” is typically replaced with “Have a blessed day.” Biblical quotes are everywhere. People hold hands and pray before a meal, even in a packed restaurant. In this particular restaurant, the Ten Commandments were in a giant frame hanging on the wall right beside our table. “May the Lord bless you” was a sign over the front door so it would be the last thing you saw as you exited.  

The restaurant owner visited our table about halfway through our consumption of fried okra, chopped pork, cornbread, and sweet ice tea. When we complimented our meal, he quickly said, “Thank you. We owe it all to our loving Savior—we are just his servants.” He wore a baseball cap with “I love Jesus” on the side and the word “Converted” embroidered in large letters across the cap’s visor.

“I like your cap,” said my mother in her warm attempt to respond to his gracious hosting. “Well, I’m getting me a new one,” he cheerfully responded as if he was hoping someone would finally give him an opening for his next line. “My new one will say ‘Witness’ instead of ‘Converted.’ It means I have a job to do and not just a label to wear.” Without realizing it he was authentically communicating a key role of a great leader--witness.  

The word “witness” has a double meaning. Obviously, it means “to observe”—the actions of a bystander or spectator. The other meaning of the word is the one used by the restaurant owner—to give evidence or act on a declaration. It means being an example rather than just a pronouncer. Followers don’t learn what matters from conversation; they learn from observation. Stated differently, they watch their leader’s moves, not just their leader’s mouth.

“Witness” Leaders Are Bold

Alphagraphics is a chain of quick copy print shops around the country. The store near Southern Methodist University in Dallas is known for on-the-spot responsiveness to customer input. “What are ways we act differently than what we say or promise?” asked manager Butch Clarke of a loyal customer one day as the customer was picking up a print job.  Butch is famous for his unique ways of querying customers.  And loyal customers get the most queries.

“Well,” the customer responded, “you talk about right job right at the right time, but I don’t see a clock anywhere.  Why don’t you put a big school house wall clock where your employees can see and the customer can see?”  

“Great idea!” Butch responded. He opened the cash register, pulled out $20 bill and turned to an associate. “Steve, take this money to the CVS at the end of the block and buy us a big battery operated wall clock to put on the wall right there. We can do the paperwork later.”   

The move was dramatic--a vivid symbolic gesture for the customer and employees alike. What kind of response do you think he got the next time he asked this customer for a suggestion? What message did Butch impart in Steve? No, you can’t instantly implement every idea every customer suggests. Customers don’t expect you to do everything they ask for. They know some of their ideas won’t work, won’t fit, or won’t be preferred. It is being valued that customers light up about.  

“Witness” Leaders Are Curious Learners

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance,” wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, “It is the illusion of knowledge.” The path to learning begins with an “I don’t know” first step following by an “I could be wrong” second step. Knowledge may give us the confidence to move into the realm of the unknown, but it is curiosity and interest that fuels that move.      

“Witness” leaders create an atmosphere of perpetual experimentation that compels employees to innovate. Creating a climate that embraces learning takes humble leaders willing to model unlearning. When Rich Teerlink was the CEO of Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson, he began large meetings with Harley dealers with the words, “Here is something I screwed up on…and what I learned from it.” Few organizations value perpetual learning (and unlearning) more than Harley-Davidson.  

“Witness” leaders emphasize personal and professional growth by recognizing employees whose performance stands out and then using them as mentors of others. They allow time in meetings for employees to share key learnings. Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote: “Leaders are more powerful role models when they learn than when they teach.” And part of that modeling is public acknowledgement of what was “unlearned” as well as what was learned.

“Witness” Leaders Are True Believers

Faith means more than religious fervor; it means “complete trust and confidence in someone or something.” Leaders who are true believers lead with a set of core values or solid principles. They are steadfast in their allegiance to those core values. Tom Peters wrote, “There is no such thing as a minor lapse of integrity.” “Witness” leaders believe in their values with their whole being and make decisions from that firm stance. This is not a pitch for self-righteousness. True believers exhibit confidence, not arrogance; certainty, not intolerance.

The Blue Marlin Supermarket on South Padre Island, Texas looks like it is still stuck in the fifties. Yet, the large crowd of customers at any time attests to its continued popularity with the locals. The all-purpose grocery store very effectively competes with nearby food giants, H-E-B and Wal-Mart. One noticeable difference is the large number of products at the Blue Marlin that have obviously very low demand.  

“If you did a cost-benefit analysis on some of the items on our shelves, you’d see the demand is way too low to make these items profitable,” says owner Gary Meschi. “But we have people who come in our store because we carry some of these rarely purchased items. Obviously, you can’t take that route on all your products. But, we believe in being great neighbors, not just making a bundle of money. It might be one of the reasons we have been here much longer than the H-E-B and Wal-Mart nearby.”  

We are in short supply of leaders who courageously declare their clear mission through the manner they actively live the role. Too often leaders cower to choices that are convenient, popular, or self-serving. They demonstrate to followers an ambivalence about their values by failing to boldly engrave them in every action they take. In the words of a restaurant owner in a South Georgia, “Witness means you have a job to do and not just a label to wear.”