Not long after graduating with my MBA from Vanderbilt, I returned to Vandy to interview the soon to be, freshly-minted MBAs for employment. Accompanying me on the trip, was my adult supervisor; my chaperon; the Vice President of human resources. She was a stunning older woman of about thirty-five. At dinner she handed me a leather-bound volume and asked me to select the wine. Not wanting to appear the fool, and trying to control my geriatric fawning, I pretended to study carefully the wine list. Not having a clue what wine to choose, I based my selection entirely on the prices. I had little or no knowledge of the subject; nonetheless, I placed the order with all the cock-sureness of a third-grader reciting the alphabet.
A few moments later Wine-man, dressed in morning attire, returned with a bottle. He angled the bottle towards me while standing as rigid as a concrete lawn statue. After a few seconds my adult supervisor paused and directed my attention towards Wine-man. I tried to appear nonplussed—nonplussed is a word that does not get enough play, so I like using it whenever I can. “You are supposed to tell him that the bottle he is holding is the one you ordered,” the thirty-something instructed me.
“He knows it is the wine I ordered; that is why he brought it.” I thought they were toying with me and that my sole purpose at dinner was being the straight man.
A few seconds later there was a popping sound, and Wine-man gently placed the disengaged cork on my white linen napkin in a manner similar to how Faberge must have delivered one of his fabled eggs to Tsar Alexander III for his wife Empress Fedorovna. They were both staring at me; not the Tsar and the Empress—Wine-man and my adult. “You are supposed to smell the cork,” she prompted. And so I did.
“If it smells bad, it means the wine may be bad.”
To which I replied, “This is the Opryland Hotel—have you seen the wine prices? Opryland doesn’t sell bad wine.” I began to wonder if I was supposed to be supervising her. She nudged me with her elbow. I knew I wasn’t wowing her, and that the chances of me taking the older woman dancing later were diminishing more rapidly than the half-life of a fruit fly. I smelled the cork. “It smells like a cork,” I whispered to Wine-man. He smiled and poured a half inch of wine in my glass. I thought he was still pulling my lariat.
I looked bemusedly at my mostly empty glass, held it out to him, and asked if I could have more—my sommelier training had made me thirsty. I would have made a better impression had I been Juggling raw eggs. Rather than embarrass me further, with a slight nod of her head, my adult instructed the Wine-man that Sommelier 101 was over—I assumed she knew that any further diminution of my nugatory social mores would be of limited marginal value. I should have ordered beer. I was good at beer.
For those still reading, if you are wondering if I am actually going to make a point, here it comes. I think segues are overrated, so don’t blink.
Sometimes, a little guidance is helpful—even if it has to come in the form of being led around like camel with a ring through its nose.
Often, what is important in a leader is having the knowledge and temerity to ask the right question. In business it is often the case that the number of executives with answers may exceed the number of executives asking questions. Value is often measured by scarcity. Good, challenging questions are often in short supply. So are leaders who do not require adult supervision.
One of my favorite books is “Wild at Heart,” a précises that men—I think it applies to all of us—spend their lives trying to live up to the expectations of their fathers. A subset of its premise is their concern that someone at work will discover that they have spent their careers bluffing about their ability to accomplish what is expected of them.
Is it possible that the difference between aspiring to be excellent—aspiring to be a leader, and being excellent is as simple as leading, as simple as one’s intent? Not being discovered as a fake? Does leadership come down to doing what you think is right versus doing what you think others will think as right?
I think many executives have an index card tucked away in the recesses of their minds. And on that index card are a list of initiatives those executives would undertake if they had their way. And therein lies the rub. Some executives choose to manage based on those initiatives—they choose to embrace the implied risk of failing. Many executives choose to be managed by the risks of those initiatives.
Pretty simple things. The right things usually are—like knowing what to do with the wine cork. Even if you can fool all of the people some of the time, sooner or later you will be called upon to choose the wine. When that moment comes, if the idea of being the person who has to make the choice makes your knees shake, do not compromise. Also, do not pick the rosé.
“If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a heck of a day.” Jimmy Valvano. “If you choose to lead, that is even better.” Paul Roemer