Former co-CEO of Chipotle, Monty Moran, shares two of his most poignant life lessons that came from unlikely sources: a homeless man, and a bird.
At 15, I became a grill cook at my local Dairy Queen. For several weeks, I saw the same man come in daily, order only coffee, and sit nearly all day alone in a booth. I was curious about him, and, wanting to get to know him, I made some burgers, and asked him if I could join him for lunch. I introduced myself. His name was Will. I asked him all about his life, and after I asked a series of probing questions, he shared that he was homeless, unemployed, disabled, and estranged from his family. I was concerned for him and wanted to help.
You might think it a bit nosy for a 15-year-old to question a homeless man, but Will’s reaction showed that, rather than irritate him, my questions lifted his spirits dramatically. He was warmed and comforted by my curiosity, interest, and concern for him.
In the coming weeks, as I got to know him better, I began to challenge him to take better care of himself, eat better, and make better decisions. Quickly, I saw changes in him. His confidence grew, and he became much more empowered in his life. I knew I’d been a part of this: my attention, care, curiosity, and concern had ignited his own desire and passion for life. It felt good to have been a part of that.
While I didn’t realize it then, I now realize that my open heart, attention, vulnerability, curiosity, concern, and efforts to challenge Will were acts of love. My loving concern for him was a catalyst which lifted his spirits and set a new course for his life. And, I was just a 15-year-old boy, with no special training, no degree, no money, no title. This taught me that all of us are endowed with an incredible gift: the ability to transform others through the power of love.
For over a year, a bird called a North American Flicker, basically a large woodpecker, was blasting holes in my house, waking me at 5 AM every day, and frankly nearly driving me crazy. Every morning, I used to run outside in my underwear like a crazy man, yelling and clapping my hands to drive him away. But he always returned. The consequences were surprisingly high. These birds did major damage to the house, which cost me thousands of dollars to repair, not to mention my lost sleep, and several months of aggravation.
I complained to my father (who was a falconer and bird expert) about these birds, and he calmly told me that buying a Flicker house (a large bird house), would quickly solve the problem. “Flickers are territorial” he explained. “Put up a nest, a pair will move in, and they’ll not only stop pecking holes in your house, but they’ll drive away all the other Flickers” he said. He even dropped off a Flicker house at my front door.
Not wanting to concede the fight to my perceived enemy, I refused to put up the house. Instead, for a year I tried everything else in the world: putting up nets, shoeing them away with brooms, applying expensive repellant, catching them, and driving them hours away from my house, and even erecting fake owls with swiveling heads all around the house. All these methods failed miserably. Especially the owls, upon the heads of which the Flickers defecated, in a demonstration of massive disrespect.
Finally, feeling I had no other options, I gave in, and installed the Flicker house. To my amazement, a pair of Flickers quickly moved in, chased the others away, and all of the noise, pecking, damage, and aggravation came to an immediate halt. While I was relieved, I was almost disappointed the Flicker house worked so well. It was like learning, 9 hours into a 10-hour flight, that your seat reclines: you’re glad for the added comfort, but just wish you would have known earlier.
You see, all along I had thought the holes in my house, terrible noises, interrupted sleep, marital stress, and expensive attempts at resolving this conflict were problems I just had to deal with. But the reality was that none of these issues were the problem! Instead, these were all symptoms caused by a single underlying problem, which was that these Flickers wanted a home. When I gave them a home, the problem was solved, and the symptoms vanished.
The 2 lessons I learned from these unlikely teachers changed the course of my life.
It changes people: igniting in them a desire to be at their very best. Everyone seems to accept that love belongs with close family members, but what people fail to see is that this same power of love belongs just as much in the boardroom and workplace as it does in the home. The key is to learn how to use this amazing force in a transformative way.
In my book, Love Is Free: Guac Is Extra, I carefully illustrate how I worked to build a world class culture at my law firm, and at Chipotle Mexican Grill, which led to some of the greatest success in the restaurant industry. This culture required me to teach thousands of people how not just to train people, but to ignite their inner drive to flourish by empowering them. This ability to empower people is the holy grail of leadership, and the foundation of empowerment is love.
Empowerment is what differentiates management from leadership. “Management” means getting someone to do something you want them to do. “Leadership” means getting someone to do something they want to do. Management is always achieved through some kind of manipulation: rewards, punishments, incentives, and consequences. But leadership is never accomplished through manipulation. It can’t be had through coercion or force. And the only way people will choose to follow a leader is if they trust and believe in the leader and know that the leader will take them to a better place. So, a leader empowers their people, by creating an environment where they feel confident in their ability, and encouraged by their circumstances, such that they feel motivated and at liberty to fully devote their talents to a purpose.
To inspire confidence in one’s ability is relatively easy, as it means training your people to know how to do their job. This is where most supervisors spend all their time, but frankly, it’s not usually the problem. The problem, when workers are not performing, is almost always because they do not have encouraging circumstances. Encouraging circumstances arise when a leader provides their people with a worthy vision, and when the leader gives their attention, care, concern, and curiosity and then challenges his people to be the best version of themselves— in other words, loves them.
If we learn to identify the underlying problem which is causing symptoms to arise, and work to eliminate the underlying problem, we can dramatically transform our organizations. But the best news is that there is a single underlying problem which causes the vast majority of symptoms in most organizations: a lack of empowerment. So, by simply learning to empower our teams, we can eliminate most symptoms, and create incredible success in almost any organization.
This lesson proved incredibly valuable in my leadership of Chipotle. I realized that all the operational issues which plagued our company – dirty restaurants, slow throughput, substandard customer service – were not actually problems, but rather were symptoms of one fundamental underlying problem. Namely, our people weren’t empowered, so they weren’t personally invested in performing at a high level. Once we empowered our teams, these symptoms went away, operations improved, and Chipotle took off like a rocket. We enjoyed historic success by nearly any measure.
I hope that these lessons help you on your own personal journey of leadership.
If you will harness the power of this lesson in your life, I am confident that you can emerge as a powerful, inspiring, and effective leader. And when you accomplish this, your team members will carry you to success.
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