The Excellence Reflex
Designing Leadership with Mantras
Welcome back to Business Design School, a twice-monthly newsletter for the creative-business-curious. I call it a school because we’ll learn to master the art of business design together. We’ll explore creative entrepreneurship and leadership, how to design things like culture and operations, and consider ways to accelerate business success and impact by design.
In this issue: Designing your leadership by defining your values and expectations for your team.
But first: I wanted to say thank you to you all. I received so many kind replies to the first issue of Business Design School — thank you. I appreciate the words of encouragement and the pre-orders of my forthcoming book. I enjoyed writing Adventures in Disruption so much I just wanted to keep writing, so here we are!
The Excellence Reflex
Designing Leadership with Mantras
Do you have words you live by? A personal mantra? As I endured some major changes in my life and career in my mid-twenties, it hit me that change is an inevitable part of life. Instead of fighting it, I would train myself to embrace it with open arms. Every day was an opportunity for change! Change is good became my mantra.
I still repeat it in my head constantly. When a big change occurs, I say it out loud to myself, affirming my mindset. Over years of doing this, I trained myself to be comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and chaos — which made me a better business designer. After all, designers must be fine with uncertainty, thrive in ambiguous situations, and make meaning from chaos.
Mantras & Leadership
The word “mantra” comes from ancient Sanskrit — it’s derived from two root words: “manas,” which means “mind,” and “tra,” which means “tool” or “instrument.” Together mantra can mean an instrument of the mind. In various spiritual and religious traditions, a mantra is a sacred word, phrase, or sound repeated silently or audibly as part of meditation, prayer, or ritual.
The classic spiritual mantra is “Om,” considered to be a sound representing the essence of the ultimate reality and consciousness. It’s chanted to help one align with the universe and connect to a higher state of awareness. Many believe mantras have a transformative and purifying effect on the mind, consciousness, and even the surrounding environment.
Too woo woo for you? The Navy doesn’t think so. Leaders at the Navy Pre-Flight School developed a sleep routine that involves relaxing your body (of course) and repeating the mantra “Don’t think” over and over in your mind. I’ve tried it. It works. A study found that 96% of pilots using this approach could fall asleep within two minutes or less while also doing things like sitting up in a chair, listening to machine-gun fire, or right after drinking coffee.
As in the case of the Navy’s sleep routine, mantras have evolved into concise motivations or guiding principles — influencing one’s thoughts, behaviors, and mindset.
My responsibilities recently expanded at work, with a few teams merging under my leadership. Since “Change is good” and “Don’t think” are so effective for me, I started thinking about deliberately designing my leadership and accelerating our journey to a shared understanding of where we wanted to go as a team. Perhaps mantras could be the medium. I think of leadership as a set of behaviors grounded in your values — so how better to design behavior than creating some mantras? Here’s how Danny Meyer got there.
Danny Meyer’s Leading Restaurants
Danny Meyer is a successful New York City restauranteur — and successful is an understatement — he has opened 25 restaurants in 30 years. Twenty-four out of the twenty-five are incredibly successful. He’s won twenty-six James Beard awards. There’s Union Square Tavern, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke and Jazz Standard, and a little chain you might have heard of called Shake Shack, just to name a few.
In the fantastic book on culture and leadership, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, author Daniel Coyle interviews Danny Meyer to understand his leadership success. For Meyer, the success of all his restaurants comes down to, as Coyle describes it, “the warm, connective feeling they create, a feeling that can be summed up in one word: home.” Everyone who dines at a Danny Meyer restaurant feels taken care of — like really taken care of. But how does he lead and get the hundreds of hosts, waitstaff, table bussers, shift managers, and more to behave with the level of warmth he expects at every level and every touch point with his customers?
In the early days, with one restaurant, he felt he could be everywhere, modeling the behaviors and rewarding the warmth he expected at every turn. Meyer was always there, busing tables, cleaning spills, and working the room. But as soon as he opened a second restaurant, he realized he couldn’t be in two places at once, and service started to slip. The watershed moment came when a regular customer, who was hosting a lunch for six, ordered salmon. She ate some of it but then told the waiter she didn’t care for it and ordered something else. The waiter brought the new dish, but the waiter and manager determined they should charge her for the salmon and the new meal, and, what’s worse, after the woman paid, they handed her a to-go bag with the salmon leftovers. Ouch. Passive-aggressive much?
Meyer was appalled. A week after this occurred, he gathered his entire staff for a retreat where he started a conversation about values. What did they, as a team, stand for? They started naming their priorities and values. And as Meyer shared with Coyle, “Naming these things felt incredibly good. Getting all this out in the open. The manager who’d caused the salmon problem ended up leaving, and that’s when things started to take off, and I realized that how we treat each other is everything. If we do that well, everything else will fall into place.”
Meyer already had a handful of catchphrases he used informally in training to share his leadership values and approach to service, but after the salmon incident and the retreat, he started to craft these pithy phrases — or mantras — to use as tools in leading his growing team.
I love his mantras; here are a few favorites: Read the guest. Athletic hospitality. Writing a great final chapter. Turning up the Home Dial. Loving problems. The excellence reflex. He defined these phrases and used them constantly to affirm and shape behavior. Skunking means spraying negative energy into the workplace like skunks do when frightened. There will be no skunking! Making the charitable assumption means when someone behaves poorly, avoid judging them and give them the benefit of the doubt. Collecting the dots means gathering information about their customers — and Connecting the dots means using that information to provide them with a truly unique experience.
As Coyle describes, Meyer began to see his role as a leader as that of a culture broadcaster. Coyle includes a study that NYU doctoral student in organizational behavior Susan Reilly Salgado did to understand Meyer’s success. One of the main drivers of success she identified: a simple set of rules that stimulate complex and intricate behaviors benefiting customers. That simple set of rules: his leadership mantras.
My Leadership Mantras
Following Danny Meyer’s lead, I reflected on my leadership values and the behaviors I expected from my team and started putting pen to paper. I can’t be everywhere either, and my hope is these mantras stick in the minds of my team members so that when they need to make a tough decision, they have a toolkit of team behaviors and values to mix with their own. Here are some of the mantras I shared:
Pragmatic Optimism: Approach challenges with a positive attitude while being practical and solution-oriented in your problem-solving approach.
Non-Precious Work: Our individual work isn’t precious, but our collective work is. Let go of personal attachment to your ideas, allowing for collaboration and continuous improvement. Be open to feedback, iteration, and changes, valuing the collective outcome over individual ownership.
Make Meaning from Chaos: Navigate through complex and uncertain situations, identifying key insights and opportunities — adapt and problem solve to bring clarity and direction, propelling projects forward even in challenging circumstances.
Make to Learn, Make to Align, Make, Make, Make: Focus on learning and building value through hands-on creation and experimentation, use that experimentation to create tangible alignment amongst colleagues, goals, and values, and create a culture of continuous creation and iteration. Generate ideas, prototype, solve rapidly, test, iterate, adapt, go!
Presence is Power: Be fully engaged, attentive, and focused on your interactions — be present in conversations and tasks to enhance your influence and effectiveness, contributing to meaningful connections and outcomes.
Courage to Question: Be willing to challenge assumptions, ask critical questions, and express dissent when necessary — this contributes to a culture of innovation and improvement by seeking deeper insights and driving thoughtful discussions that lead to better decisions and outcomes. Remember: to innovate is to challenge the status quo.
Show Your Work: Openly share progress, ideas, and efforts with the team. By doing so, you encourage collaboration, receive valuable feedback, and inspire your colleagues — this fosters an environment of collective growth and mutual support.
Don’t Chase Credit: Focus on contributing value rather than seeking recognition — prioritize the team’s and the organization’s success over personal acclaim and foster a cooperative and results-driven culture that benefits everyone involved. When you do good work, the credit will follow.
And I shared some specifically for the leaders I lead, some examples:
Push Decision-Making Down: Empower and trust associates to make decisions at various levels of the organization. Allow them to take ownership of their work, encourage autonomy, and create a more agile and responsible environment for great work to happen and launch. Empower our people and set them free on the challenges we face.
Bureaucracy is a Weed, Pull It: Eliminate unnecessary processes and obstacles that hinder productivity and innovation — promote a more direct and open line of communication between leaders and associates to improve collaboration and make decisions faster.
Low Ego: You’re not a leader because you’re the best at what you do; you’re a leader because you understand people. Prioritize understanding and supporting team members over showcasing your own skills and talent. Leadership is about effective communication, empathy, and fostering a collaborative environment that brings out the best in individuals and the team as a whole.
Design Your Leadership
Distill your leadership philosophy, values, and expectations into concise impactful statements that resonate with you and your team. Here’s how to jump in:
Fun side note: I celebrated a birthday a week or so ago; here’s part of the gift from my parents:
I’d love to hear from you — what are your favorite mantras in life and/or leadership? You can simply reply to this email.
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Have a great week! Talk soon!
Sam Aquillano is a business designer and writer. In 2009 he founded Design Museum Everywhere, an online, nomadic museum with the mission to bring the transformative power of design everywhere. His upcoming book, Adventures in Disruption: How to Start, Survive, and Succeed as a Creative Entrepreneur, chronicles his team’s startup journey and is available for pre-order, launching in October 2023. He's now a Design Director leading business design at Edward Jones. Sam has earned numerous awards for his work, including the Red Dot Design Award, Graphic Design USA’s Responsible Designers to Watch, and Fatherly named him one of the Coolest Dads in America.