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Joe Lee was sitting at a table, rapidly counting rain jackets in a small room somewhere above the sumptuous lobby of the Jamaican hotel where I was to speak at a corporate conference the next morning. I did not know who he was then, although he looked familiar. I was just told that the man in that room could tell me if there was a spare space for me to go on the rainforest tour arranged for conference attendees.

He looked up and smiled as I came in saying, “What can do for you?”  I asked him and he replied, “You came in at the perfect time. I was just making sure we had enough jackets and one of our people just dropped by to tell me he was switching to another tour.”

“The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.” ~ John Buchan

Only later that night at the opening mixer when I saw Joe walk in, listening to two people animatedly talking to him did I realize he was the same man I’d shaken hands in the receiving line outside the hotel when I arrived. He was the CEO of Darden Restaurants, the company hosting the conference for its top performing managers at Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

Here’s what happened. 

Rather than an estimated 30 minute taxi ride from the airport, through town and up the hill to the hotel, three of us had a muggy, noisy and fascinating two hour trip through one of the biggest local festivals of the year.  As I and the other attendees straggled in all day from the airport, in a remarkable show of respect the top management and all board members stood out in the heat, waiting for us.  They lined up to personally greet us. The last person I met in line was humble Joe Lee who had started working at Darden as a 19 year old.

“You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you, unless you know how to follow, too.” ~ Sam Rayburn

Sadly it is not a common scene for me to see at the conferences at which I speak: the CEO personally going out of his way to see that his people are taken care of.

That’s probably why I observed something else that should be more common at such conferences.  During breaks attendees were surrounding Joe, eager to talk.  He actively listened rather than talking at them.  And the board members and officers were not standing off by themselves. Rather they sat at different tables and walked around to talk with various individuals throughout the day.

“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” ~ Ken Kesey

That’s why I beamed when I opened the New York Times this Sunday and saw one of those Darden officers staring back at me, Clarence Otis Jr., then CFO, mentoreby Joe and now the company’s CEO.

In this newspaper interview Clarence described how Joe’s inclusive leadership style has influenced his.

“You can judge a leader by the size of the problem he tackles. Others cope with the waves, it’s his job to watch the tide.” ~Antony Jay

Reflecting a Me2We leadership mindset, here’s some nuggets from Clarence’s interview:

• First Care or Your Team

“On Sept. 11, 2001, after it became clear what had happened, we had an all-employee meeting, and Joe started to talk. One of the first things he said was, ‘we are trying to understand where all our people are who are traveling.’

The second thing he said was: ‘We’ve got a lot of Muslim teammates, managers in our restaurants, employees in our restaurants, who are going to be under a lot of stress during this period. And so, we need to make sure we’re attentive to that.’

And that was pretty powerful. Of all the things you could focus on that morning, he thought about the people who were on the road and then our Muslim colleagues.”

• You’ll Do Well if the Teams You Create Do

When asked how his leadership style has changed over time, he responded, “It’s less and less about getting the work done and more and more about building the team — getting the right people in place who have the talent and capability to get the work done and letting them do it.

• Associate With People Who Perform Well in Unclear Situations

Being comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty is a trait I look for… they’ve got their wits about them, so they’re looking as much for the opportunity that’s inherent in that as they are for the risk.

“Leadership is the ability to establish standards and manage a creative climate where people are self-motivated toward the mastery of long term constructive goals, in a participatory environment of mutual respect, compatible with personal values.” ~ Mike Vance

In a weak economy organizations must optimize performance of everyone. Clarence’s approach reflects the most efficient way to accomplish that – evoking the ensemble style he learned from acting where everyone knows they are a valued part of a team. 

They get in sync with each other.

They look to each other’s needs just as Joe did by counting rain jackets for his people. 

moving from me to we


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