Leading From "Sloppy Joe's"

If a movie had the role of “bar” in it, Sloppy Joe’s would win the Academy Award. It is situated in bar heaven—on Duval Street in the middle of Key West, Florida. It is dark, smelly, and loud. It is no diner with a bar; it is a bar with an attitude. Its walls have no doubt eavesdropped on countless propositions, provocations and predictions. The cracked mirror over the bathroom sink has reflected many inebriated promises never kept.

But, this post is not about this still-popular bar. It is about one of its most famous frequent visitors in the 1930’s and 40’s—Ernest Hemingway. Even today Sloppy Joe’s sponsors a “Papa Hemingway Look-alike” contest.

Ernest Hemingway was one of this country’s greatest novelists. At least one of his many classics—The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc.—is required reading for most students. Not only did he win the Nobel Prize for literature and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, many of his novels were transformed into blockbuster movies. But, the content of his compelling stories did not just come from his vivid imagination. They came from Sloppy Joe’s.

Hemingway spent most his evenings at the lively bar listening to the stories of sailors and fishermen. His astute snooping gave him powerfully realistic content. His presence no doubt stirred animation in the storytelling; his participation likely made the teller of the tales feel celebrated and valued. “Being present,” said Marriott CEO Bill Marriott in a meeting I attended with him, “Is not to make associates happier; it is to make leaders smarter.”

But, Hemingway did not just take his stories home late at night to sleep them away along with his too-many Scotches. Hemingway rose most mornings to write from 9am until 2pm or 800 words, whichever came first. It was insight set free through discipline and application. Good leaders know; great leaders act on what they know.

Leadership is Command Presence

“You can pretend to care, you cannot pretend to be there,” wrote Texas Bix Bender in his book Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On!

Bender was describing a vital feature of leadership—command presence. People who spend more than twenty minutes in the military know the power of command presence. Officer school candidates are drilled on the power and practice of the manner of a leader—focused, attentive, and engaged. Command presence is not about control, it is about connection; it is not about power, it is about partnership. Leaders with command presence convey character. They are all about spirit…that is, being, not just doing. They focus on being there, everywhere, not in absentia. And, when they are there, they are all there…focused, attentive and engaged.

Great leaders prefer the employee cafeteria air better than the atmosphere on mahogany row. They hunt for genuine encounters. They upset the pristine and proper by inviting vocal customers to boardroom meetings. They spend time in the field and on the floor where the action is lively, not in carefully contrived meetings where the action is limp. They thrive on keeping things genuine and vibrant.

Leadership is Being Spirit-Full

Leadership is the act of influencing another to achieve important goals. It is not about rank or authority. Ask any parent frustrated by a resistant child; authority is the last resort of the inept. Leadership is about being--the conveyance of a clear and present spirit. “You don’t have to know that Susan is the leader,” a manager said of his leader. “You can feel it the second she walks into the room. There is a warm connection that reaches out of who she is and just pulls you right in. Some people might call it charisma, I call it assertive caring.”

Spirit-full leaders let go of proving who they are in exchange for being who they are. They are givers whose curious interest in others drives them to be completely absorbed in whoever is on the other end of their conversations. They are patient listeners super eager to learn, not anxious listeners restless to make a point. They show awe in others with the same unabashed innocence of a child at the zoo for the first time.

Great leaders are passion givers. Just like Mickey Mouse “on stage” at Disney World or Lady Gaga “in concert,” they show their excitement with the moment and their optimism for the future regardless how much sleep they got the evening before or their worry over hiccups in the balance sheet. Great leaders are pathfinders who light the way with their positive faith. They would rather facilitate than challenge. They cultivate confidence rather than breed caution.

Leadership is Being There…All There

Leaders are present. They don’t just lead by wandering around; they lead by staying engaged. They don’t just know the facts and figures; they know the stories and struggles. Because they make it their business to do their homework on customers and associates, they can affirm on sight without benefit of cue card or staff whispers. They call associates at home to congratulate them on something important to the associate. They thank customers for their business with sincerity and obvious gratitude. They hold meetings on the turf of others.

Great leaders bring a perpetual energy and intensity to every encounter. They are always wide-awake. When it comes to their role, they are never lazy, disinterested or indifferent. They care enough to bring their very best. They show up in life with “completed staff work.”

Hemingway used the crucible of a noisy, animated bar as the place to learn. But, he did not show up for a brew and quiet observation.  He engaged, he prodded, he cajoled, and most of all he listened.  “When people talk,” wrote Hemingway, “listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Your Sloppy Joe’s might be the break room, in other units’ meetings, doing ride-alongs with field people, or sit-alongs with contact center operators. Create a setting for dramatic listening and lavish understanding. And, like Hemingway at the typewriter, turn it into astute execution that reflects your learned insight and informed wisdom.

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