One day, an executive decides to have lunch in the associate cafeteria for the first time. Immediately recognized, she chats with associates as she works through the line choosing her meal. When she gets to the beverage cooler, she looks at the brands and flavors available, then offhandedly comments, “Hmm, no Dr Pepper” as she reaches for a Coke. She proceeds to the register and enjoys her lunch.
The next day, the associates notice that the beverage cooler now contains nothing but Dr Pepper …
[Author unknown, but greatly appreciated! If you or anyone you know has a proprietary interest in this story please authenticate and I will be happy to credit, or remove, as appropriate.]
I’ve related this story numerous times over the years, in several different companies holding distinctive cultures. Every time, I ask the same exact question: “What do you think happened here?”
At one company in particular, across several facilitations, the response was always the same: the executive mandated Dr Pepper for the beverage cooler!
What does this say about this culture?
But we need to slow down … because that particular answer was more common than any other. Across several different companies. Each with a distinctive culture.
Interesting, isn’t it? So maybe the better question is: “What does this say about how we view our leaders?”
But we need to slow down again. We need to consider that it is certainly possible that the CEO did, in fact, mandate nothing but Dr Pepper in the beverage cooler. This is a plausible interpretation.
Plausible, but likely dead wrong.
How about … the supervisor of the cafeteria overheard the CEO’s comment, attributed meaning to it, and changed the beverage cooler of his own volition. It is quite likely that the CEO had nothing whatsoever to do with the change, and will likely never know that her off hand comment had such an effect …
Even more scary are the unfounded assumptions people make when they see all that Dr Pepper in the cooler …. a day after the CEO joined the common folk for lunch … and was upset that her cherished Dr Pepper wasn’t available in her cafeteria …
Leaders have long shadows.
When our Dr Pepper executive reads an email on her way to work that upsets her a bit; consequently she doesn’t quite acknowledge her admin when she arrives at her office; is it so hard to believe that a half hour later the entire office has a heads up to lay low and beware?
When our Dr Pepper executive steps out of a strategy meeting in the middle of a discussion exploring a new product line, is it so hard to believe the absence of the product line from the final draft of the strategic plan?
When our Dr Pepper executive …
Such a burden this must be! Everything seemingly falls within the shadow.
Leaders: Can you relate to this? Can you recall specific instances that would suggest that you indeed have a much longer shadow than you might previously have believed?
You may not be able to see it. But trust me: you have Dr Pepper’s shadow.
Daniel Meehan said:
Good story. I feel if you interact on a personal level with employees, and involve them in the decision process, they will feel as they are a part of the shadow, or that their shadow is parallel with yours. Easier said than done the larger the organization. Of course the leader will always cast a long shadow, but it is how people respect and respond to it. You wont achieve that if you only “once in a while” come down from the tower for a Dr. Pepper. Everyone who works with me knows I like Mountain Dew! They see me drink it with them daily.
John M. Greco said:
Good comments! Yes indeed; when you regularly come down from the mountain to have your Mountain Dew, your shadow is just one of the shadows …
John, this post really hit home. I sometimes think that no matter what we do as leaders, the shadow is really hard to lessen. I also believe that the shadow effect is much more prevalent with some personality types than others. I have some staff who I know are very comfortable in converation with me on just about any level. Others…well, I know they question every interaction. And I know it has more to do with their insecurity than with any difference in how I interact with them versus others on the team. So, how much more challenging is this for my boss? And his boss? And…?
I think we all just need to be as genuine as we can, and know that at the end of the day, we can only control how we behave, and what we say, and not what other people think or do in reaction to that.
John M. Greco said:
Terri, omigosh your comments are solid and substantial and make me think! It is interesting that you correlate the shadow dynamic to leader (and follower?) personality typing … there must be research on that out there waiting for us to find …
You are without question one of the most genuine, approachable, and real leaders that I’ve had the privilege to work with. And even you note the challenge of the shadow …
At the risk of extending the metaphor too far, I am reminded that a shadow disappears when it is directly under the light source. Hmmmmm …
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