“Talent will get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.” –John Wooden
The problem with most leaders is that they always look for those who can get them to the top without ever thinking about who can keep them at the top.
At the restaurant I ran, I had a world-class pizza guy, let’s call him “O.” O made pizzas fast. When he worked, no matter how busy the restaurant was, no matter how slow the other food was coming out, we knew that pizza would be reliably on time. He made excellent pizza. Customers and employees raved about his work. He made pizza with ease. So much ease that he could probably make pizza in his sleep.
A Napoleon Complex
The problem was not O’s talent. He had all the talent in the world. If he were a computer algorithm, he would be the best pizza-making algorithm known to man. The problem was that he wasn’t an algorithm. O was human. To be more specific, he was a little man with a large ego. And because he was the best, and he knew he was the best, he often let his ego take over. He’d come to work as late as he wanted, he’d pick fights with whoever he wanted, and he would simply do whatever he wanted. He was untouchable.
Unsurprisingly, the owner of the restaurant coveted O. He loved him. In his eyes, O could do no wrong. O had worked for the owner for almost a decade before I started working for the company. They had a long history together. They had built an almost unbreakable, bond. So, naturally, prior to opening the new restaurant I would be running—the largest in the chain of restaurants, the owner wanted O to be our primary pizza guy.
If you don’t own the trains…
In an early example of telling the owner hard-truths he didn’t want to hear, I strongly objected to his idea. I told him that I knew how talented O was. I knew that based off of talent alone, he would be a great building-block for a young staff in such a large restaurant. But I had worked with O at another location where I trained. I’d seen him at his best, but I also saw much more of him at his worst. He lacked character. He was a cancer. And I did not want him to infect the culture I was trying to build.
The owner and I had been on excellent terms to this point. He’d been pleased with all the work I had been doing, and was willing to listen to my point of view. But by expressing my disagreement with him, I had unknowingly tripped a wire in his mind that would set off a chain of unfortunate events far down the road.
After a discussion on the topic of O, we compromised. He said O would only be at my restaurant temporarily, until everyone was trained. I trusted the owner. I accepted his plan. After all, I had no choice. I didn’t own the trains. I was just there to ensure that they ran on time.
In the first week of business, O was excellent. It’s almost like he was a different person. He trained other pizza makers. He helped in all areas of the department. He was on top of absolutely everything. I was impressed. But I just knew it wouldn’t last long.
As expected, as we settled in during the second and third week, O returned to true form. His arrogance, his disrespect, his ego—everything he’d been hiding in that first week was bursting through the seams. He started coming in late. He played on his phone while there was work to be done. He often would be missing from the pizza area, only to be found outside behind the restaurant, smoking and FaceTiming. His co-workers saw this and began talking to me about it. I knew I had to fire him, but my hands were tied…
O was the owner’s favorite. He was untouchable. O knew it. I knew it. The staff knew it.
Everything I told the owner was coming to fruition. I saw the morale of the team crumbling before my eyes. I told the owner to pull the plug. The problem was that the owner was disengaged. He never came to see what I was seeing. He relied on his history with O to justify keeping him in place. This was a terrible sign of things to come.
Optimize for what you can’t control
We will conclude the story of O in the next essay, but here is the moral of the story:
Most leaders have this idea that talent is superior to everything, including character. But when you prioritize talent, you fail to understand the second and third-order consequences. You sow the seeds of dysfunction. The team suffers, and morale declines, even if there is only a single bad actor like O. The owner never quite understood that we can train anyone to make pizza well. But what we can’t train is good character.
Control what you can control. Optimize for what you can’t control. By optimizing for character, you’ll have the focus to teach anyone how to make the world’s best pizza.
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