Not long ago a young man from Hopkins, MN did something Amazing at the Dairy Queen shop he manages. It wasn’t earth shattering. And it was something, in his own words, that “99 out of a 100 people” would have done. Yet it was rare and wonderful enough that the Internet and traditional news media have been buzzing about for weeks. It’s dragged him into an unfamiliar spotlight of modest fame and good fortune.
Here’s the 411:
On September 10, Joey Prusak witnessed a bad act. One of his customers, who is visually impaired, dropped a $20 bill but didn’t realize it. Another customer grabbed it and stuffed it in her purse. I guess she figured, ‘finders keepers’. But Prusak wasn’t having any of that. He asked her to give it back. When she refused he asked her to leave the store. He was not going to serve people who behaved with such disrespect. Then, he opened his wallet, pulled out a $20, and gave it to the customer who lost his. After that he went back to work.
(The story got out because another customer witnessed it and emailed DQ headquarters. From there a DQ employee posted it to Facebook.)
While I admire his humility and optimism, I disagree that 99 people out of a 100 would do what he did. If this were true, then Mr. Prusak would probably not be a minor Internet celebrity. He wouldn’t have received calls, interviews, well-wishes and gifts from the many people he has. He surely would not have gotten a call from Warren Buffet, the Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the company that owns Dairy Queen (complete with an invitation to join Buffet at next spring’s shareholder’s meeting).
Besides humility and kindness, there is a lot we can learn from this act. Prusak’s behavior demonstrates many attributes of leadership that we talk about and read about but don’t always witness. So its become a powerful learning moment. Here are some valuable leadership lessons I take from this event.
1. Leaders take action.
It’s easy to see something like this happen and tell ourselves (or others) how wrong it was for that lady to take the $20 bill that didn’t belong to her. It’s much harder to do something about it. The inertia created by habit can prevent us from taking action. Also, fear of the unknown and the perceived risks associated with it can keep us from acting.
But to accomplish any sort of positive change, action is required. Successful leaders know that while talking, thinking and planning are important, change does not happen without action.
2. Leaders have ethical standards and they hold themselves accountable to them.
Prusak was clear in what he thought about people who would steal from others so blatantly. He wasn’t afraid to act on his values and he did so by asking the “suspect” to leave the store. Doing so might have violated a company policy. It may have exceeded his authority. But it fit with his value system so he made his decision and he acted on it. This takes courage but it also takes self-awareness and unwavering confidence in your own value system. I’ve heard it said “character is what we do when no one is looking”. Our values are the foundation that character is built upon.
3. Leaders put others first.
Effective leaders know whatever they accomplish, they do it through the work of others. Building a team that gets things done requires a lot of different capabilities. The most important (in my opinion) of these is to serve others. Leadership experts talk about “servant leadership” as a style of leadership. I see serving others as necessary in all forms of leadership. What better way is there to build trust and connectedness with others than to put them first?
4. Leaders are positive role models
Ineffective leaders often suffer from the “do as I say, not as I do” syndrome. If your actions and words align with your values and people can see that consistently, they’re more likely to believe you and trust you. It’s hard to build credibility when people think your words are empty.
As a manager at Dairy Queen, Joey Prusak has all kinds of credibility with his employees when he talks of treating customers well and doing the right thing. They can see his values demonstrated in his actions on a daily basis. Even better, he has probably improved how his employees do their jobs simply by being a role model. He’s shown them what can happen when you do the right thing.
Maybe the most important lesson here is that we can all do the right thing for our customers (and others in our lives). Prusak’s actions and his humble response to the all the attention he’s getting are his way of saying, anyone can do this.
We just need to choose to do it.