3 Leadership Lessons from the Dinner Table

As leaders, we continually search for ways to improve, refine and hone our skills, abilities and demeanor. In this quest, we are consistently met with one immovable hurdle that limits our achievements…time. No matter how we adjust our schedules, there are consistently 24 hours in a day. We try to cheat Mother Nature and gain more usable time by sleeping less. This only works as a surge technique and not sustainable as less sleep over time loosens our focus and reminds us to remain mentally sharp, we must take proper care of our brain housing and sustainment system, also known as our bodies. For me, this means two things: Exercise and Eating. The first part is easy. Exercise is my time. It is time to clear my mind and lose myself in thought while achieving that Runner’s High to which many of us are so addicted. The second part is what I would like you to think about today. Are you eating properly? Are you being efficiently effective with this time, or are you wasting it merely obtaining sustenance for your body?

This past week, I was fortunate to spend a week at a location where I will soon assume a senior leadership role. It is an amazing place with over 7,000 teammates working together to achieve success. Daily, they deliberately and determinedly work toward success in the mission of the organization, the goals of their families and to continue their personal growth. I want to know each of their stories. The hard part? Acknowledging this is an unrealistic goal. Not only is there not enough time to accomplish this, there exists another fact which many senior leaders are reluctant to acknowledge…insulation. A true leader can not honestly believe the building is always that clean and the best members of the team always happen to be waiting just outside the front door when you drive up. While it is a deliberate and honorable effort by junior leaders to show off their people and organizations, it unintentionally insulates a leader from a true look at the organization. Similarly, those that work for you are routinely reluctant to be open and honest in their conversation with their true assessment of the team and their actual needs. So, the question remains… how do you prevent unintentional insulation from a true snapshot of the organization?

While it is a deliberate and honorable effort by junior leaders to show off their people and organizations, it unintentionally insulates a leader from a true look at the organization.

By now, you are wondering how the two lines of thought above tie together? Where do people do their most honest discussion, let their guard down a bit and just talk? At the meal table. Whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, this is the time most of us focus on relaxing and enjoying a satisfying meal. So, the obvious question that follows is how do you utilize this opportunity? Do you sit at your desk in isolation and further insulate yourself? Do you dine with your closest friend who shares a very similar background to yours? Or do you make time of the valuable seconds shared at a meal? I offer there are three invaluable ways to utilize this newfound growth opportunity: Dinner Down, Dinner Up and Nuclear Dinner.

1. Dinner Down

Confident and efficiently effective leaders deliberately dine with those they lead. This is an opportunity to join those whom you are responsible to guide and develop in their careers.

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Mentor them, learn their stories and gain honest feedback in this often-misallocated time each day. This is a simple step to breaking through that insulation you naturally experience in being a senior leader.

2. Dinner Up

At every level of leadership, we must continue to strive for improvement. We must find time in our busy schedules to be mentored ourselves. This becomes tougher at the higher levels of command because of the many demands on our time and the expanded responsibility to develop those under our care. Seek out those you admire and respect to gain mealtime mentorship in order to better your self. Light conversation over a burger or wrap will turn out to be some of the most beneficial advice and experience stories you will ever receive.

3. Nuclear Dinner

Make time for family. With four children in various levels of school, sports, volunteer opportunities and the many other pulls on each of your time, my family still strives for family dinner around the table 5 nights a week. This is my most precious time. It is when we discuss each persons’ day, our good and bad, our lessons, successes and shortcomings. It is where we instill manners and ideals, dedication and devotion. Without this third type of dinner, the other two will fall short. Now, all families are different. Whether size, composition or legality, you know who your nuclear family consists of…spouse, partner, children, friends…a strong leader needs a solid foundation on which to grow. And in these same meals you are building your replacement, the next generation to carry on your name.

Mealtime Mentorship

As obvious as these three techniques seem, their importance became glaringly obvious to me over the past week. Staying in a hotel over 6,000 miles from my family, I missed our nightly Nuclear Dinner. Eating in the Base Restaurant, I found Airmen open for true conversation. And last night I joined my close friends Switch and Shift Co-Founder Shawn Murphy and YouTern Founder and A World Gone Social Co-Author Mark Babbitt for a wonderful dinner at Hook and Ladder where we shared our passion for writing, discussed leadership, social media and life in general. These seemingly simple and unrelated events across the past week served as my inspiration to discuss the criticality of mealtime mentorship with you. In closing, my challenge to you is this…be deliberate in how you choose to spend your 86,400 seconds each day. Always make the most of each day for your followers, your family and yourself.

 
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Chris R. Stricklin is a combat-proven leader, mentor and coach integrating the fields of dynamic followership, negotiations, leadership, positive change, public relations, public speaking and complex organizational change. His unique experience as a U.S.A.F. Thunderbird coupled with Pentagon-level management of critical Air Force resources valued at $840B, multiple N.A.T.O. assignments, White House and DARPA fellowships, and command-experience in the United States Air Force allow his unique synthesis of speaking, following, leading, management, negotiations, continuous improvement and positive change. Chris is also a Certified Manager with degrees in Economics, Financial Planning, Strategic Studies and Operational Art and Science. He authored a negotiation primer which was subsequently published and adopted as required Air Force Pentagon new action officer orientation. He and his wife, Terri, have 4 children.

  • Yours is an important quandary.

    You want to know each of their stories? Of 7,000 people? I cannot imagine why you would want to attempt to achieve such an impossible goal.

    You want to know to prevent unintentional insulation from a true snapshot of the organization? Now you are close, but snapshot? is that all you want? How about an accurate picture?

    If you admit that the best decisions will be made by your lowest level people because they can have all the facts relevant to any decision and you can’t, then you have a chance of helping them to make the best decisions. You need to accept your job as leading/helping them to become highly motivated, highly committed, and fully engaged Superstars who love to come to work and are at least 300% more productive than if poorly engaged.

    The only way to do that is to get with them, listen to their complaints, suggestions, and questions, and then respond to those to their satisfaction or better. This will lead all your subordinate managers/supervisors to do the same and show your people that you really care about them, really respect them, and really value them individually and as a group. When I last did exactly that I turned a demotivated, demoralized, and disengaged group of 1300 unionized people into Superstars who our competitors knew they could not possibly match.

    Don’t expect them to come to you. Go out to them.

  • Ben, Thank you for taking the time to add incredible thought to this article. As you stated, this is an important quandary that each leader deals with in some fashion.

    7,000 stories…I admit it is an impossible goal, as I did in the article. But think about the best leaders who you admire. All of mine share one thing. They knew my name and cared about me, not just the organization and the mission. When leaders care, followers care more. When leaders care, they learn details like names and stories that, in turn, bring intrinsic motivation and self -efficacy. I truly feel just because it is impossible to learn all 7,000 stories I should not fail to try to learn fifty or a hundred or a thousand or as many as possible. Now, I do not mean to imply this is my number one goal, I am just trying to highlight to leaders they should take the time to talk to people along the way. Too often, we are shuttled from one meeting to another and never take time to talk to people along the way, the same people who yield the success or failure of our organization.

    For your second point of “the best decisions will be made by your lowest level people” I concur wholeheartedly. The challenge of a strong and confident leader is to make as few decisions as possible. Now, this does not excuse a path of indecisions, actually the opposite. Empower your people to make decisions at the lowest level feasible. Question every topic that comes before you for decision to determine why it could not be made further down the chain of command. If someone in your organization does not have the power to say yes to a proposal, then they should not have the authority to say no.

    Finally, you summarized the message of my article better than I: Don’t expect them to come to you. Go out to them.

    A strong leader is a proactive listener to his/her team and strives to drive conversations with
    those whose voices they NEED to hear.

  • Chris,
    Thanks for taking the time to acknowledge my comment and to comment on it. I have made more than a few comments on SwitchandShift posts but have never received anything back. Color me amazed!

    As for the best leaders I have known, none knew everyone’s name and everyone showed that they cared beyond measure because they stood ready, willing, and able always to provide what we needed in order to excel. The very best was Admiral Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy. He would have belittled any goal of knowing everyone’s name, but he would have asked if he or any of his staff had ever failed to support those of us in the field. He and and his staff

  • Ben,

    You gave me your precious time to read this article. I owe you the respect to do the same with your comment. That is Proof One I practice what I discussed in this and most every article I write.

    Here is my challenge to you…if you ever find a timely comment on something I published with no response, I will buy you a Starbucks Coffee (since I do all my writing in the morning with a cup of coffee). I challenge my fellow Leaguers to the same.

    Completely know the leaders and styles you detail, but I offer they were the norm in an older military. Today’s world is cluttered with opportunities outside the military which pay more and travel less. I see the business world in a similar fashion. Successful people do not work for a paycheck, they work as part of self-actualization and the paycheck allows them to continue.

    The true way to experience exponential growth in any organization is to focus on the Human Side of Business. No longer can an organization just engage employees from the shoulders down as Henry Ford did. These teammates deserve to be engaged from the neck up! Get their mind, and heart, in the game. Treat them with the trust and respect they deserve, acknowledging everyone’s personal and professional lives are intricately intertwined and inseparable. Knowing their stories, or even their names as some of your examples did not, will allow you to relate to them as people and not just assets. In a culture that appreciates and cares, people flourish and can achieve more than you or they ever dreamed. As a result, your organization will succeed.

    I am passionate about what I do. I love my country and my duties as an Air Force Officer. It is that devotion which allows me to wake with motivation and determination each day. All I can hope to inspire in those I lead is a simple mantra by which I continue to grow..Be more than you ever thought you could be and make things better!

    • Chris, an older military? I retired from the Navy 11 years before you graduated from college. Are you referring to a time before 1960?

      You imply that Henry Ford did not use his people’s brainpower. How did you come to that conclusion?

      • Glad to continue our discussion in private, contact me on LinkedIn if you would like.

    • Chris – good thoughts. But you forgot to answer my two questions. I remain curious as to the answers.

  • Yuvarajah

    Hi Chris,

    I am still waiting for your response or Coffee!.

    http://switchandshift.com/6-traits-of-a-rebel-leader

    • Boom! I was caught with my own words and dropped your reply…for way too long. Yuvarajah — I definitely owe you a coffee! Thanks for your time in reading and for your time in posting. My apologies in not replying.

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