Always move the salt shaker back to the center of the table.

That is the essence of leadership. When you’re reading dozens of books, talking with dozens of people, watching dozens of videos, or reading 100 essays on the subject of leadership, it’s easy to get lost in such a dense forest of information and advice, to the point that you forget what leadership actually is. I’ve certainly been there, and it can be overwhelming to think about the endless questions of “what should I do in this situation?”, “what do I do when that happens?”, “how do I approach this problem?”. But by now, I can tell you with certainty, that leadership begins and ends with nothing more than a well-placed salt shaker. Everything else is nuance.

Picture your dinner table at home, or a table at a busy restaurant. Clear everything off of it and place a salt shaker at the center. That is order. That is what you aim for as a leader. Now imagine someone comes by and moves the salt shaker from the center, off to the edge of the table. That is chaos. That is life. And your job as a leader is not to get mad about it. Your job is simply to move it back to the center of the table and restore order.

Now imagine if you had to repeatedly bring the salt shaker back to the middle of the table each time someone came by and moved it. After just a few times, you might get annoyed. After several more times, you might get angry. But with each occurrence, you must see through your anger and simply focus on that singular goal: bringing the salt shaker back to the middle of the table. Every single time. That’s it.

The salt shaker theory has stuck with me ever since I first read Danny Meyer’s book, Setting the Table, in my preparation to run a restaurant. In his book, Danny talks about the time one of his mentors, Pat Cetta, came by his restaurant to advise him on how to better manage his team. It was then and there that Pat first introduced the salt shaker theory to Danny, and it fundamentally changed his perspective on management and leadership forever. Danny has since gone on to build several Michelin Star restaurants, as well as the fast-food chain, Shake Shack. He wrote about all of those experiences in his book, and yet the one thing that I will always remember most is the salt shaker story.

Danny describes his approach to returning the salt shaker to the center of the table in three effective words: Constant. Gentle. Pressure. These are words that, when used together, almost bring to mind a parent guiding their child as they learn how to ride a bike—constant contact to keep them from falling over, gentle touch to keep them calm, and apply pressure to help them build momentum. Except, with leadership, life never really fully learns how to ride its bike.

As the leader, you must be there to keep the order, to guide people back to the priority when they lose their way, and to move the salt shaker back to the center of the table. Here is how I’ve come to understand and implement the salt shaker theory:

Constant: You must make clear to everyone on your team what exactly that “salt shaker” is and where it needs to be on the table. In my restaurant, it was personal accountability. If everyone held themselves and each other accountable for knowing and executing their roles, the restaurant would do well. When employees fell out of line—coming in to work late, doing a sloppy cleanup job, texting on their phones when there was clearly work to be done—that is when I had to step in and move the salt shaker back to the middle of the table. Each and every time.

Gentle: If you become a forceful dictator, if you let your emotions take over, people shut off immediately and revert to doing the bare minimum to get by. I always made sure that my people knew what the salt shaker was, where it needed to be, and I left the rest up to them. I gently guided them towards my vision for the restaurant, not by yelling and screaming, but by telling them firmly, respectfully, and empathetically what needed to be done, and how.

Pressure: Newton’s first law is the law of inertia: a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by a force. Applied to leadership, if you don’t push, people don’t move. It’s not always enough to just tell your people what the salt shaker is. There are times when you must act to guide them back to the middle, whether it’s punishment, encouragement, or instruction.

The power of a well-placed metaphor is a beautiful thing. In one single glance, one single idea, one single visual, the essence of leadership is captured beautifully. Leadership is a lot like investment strategies and diet advice. People try to make it more complicated than it needs to be. But at the end of the day, all leadership really amounts to is this:

Always move the salt shaker back to the center of the table.

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