Leadership Matters

I first learned of leadership, as I have learned about so many things, from my father. As a boy, I went down one hot summer day to work with him on the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, where my family ran a business wholesaling produce and exporting a range of food products all over the world.

On this particular day, there was to be a large export shipment of potatoes, and we had to transfer thousands of bags of round white potatoes from trucks to containers that would be delivered to the shipping line. Potatoes were packed in 50-pound bags, and it was a laborious job. Dozens of sweating workers passed the 50-pound bags along as if they were on an assembly line. Rising above the line was the foreman, standing on a fruit crate, rhythmically clapping his hands to set the pace.

I was a bit of a smart aleck back then, and as my father and I left the men and went to the office, I made a snide remark about the clapping guy having an easy job. After all, I was only eight or nine and could do that job already. My father is a man of concise thought, and he paused for a moment to point out: “It may be easy to clap, but it is very hard to get people to move 50-pound bags of potatoes just because you are clapping.”

As the deli industry gathers in Minneapolis for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association’s annual convention and trade show, it is an appropriate time to think about leadership. Going to the IDDBA show is always an incredible opportunity, not just because there is no trade show quite like it in the world, nor because there are unparalleled networking opportunities and many really terrific seminars. Going to IDDBA each year is not merely career enhancing and educational; it is, almost uniquely among major food shows, inspirational.

In no small part this is because the IDDBA team takes the time and spends the money — and it takes prodigious amounts of both — to select daily keynoters who offer examples of exceptional leadership. This year, those keynoters include President George Herbert Walker Bush, General Colin Powell (ret.), plus Kyle Petty, scion of the famous racing family and, himself, the winner of the Nascar Winston Cup.

Studying leadership is a neglected activity. Somehow the urgency is always to learn how to set up some new program or to figure out how to advance the company’s latest initiative. But the truth is that all our day-to-day activities are dependent on our abilities as leaders. From the deli clerk who needs to entice cooperation from among his peers, to those in managerial positions who have to elicit cooperation both up and down the reporting chart, and on to the CEO level where not only do CEOs have to inspire cooperation within their organization but there are dozens of constituencies — board members, shareholders, bankers, government officials, etc. — that also must be inspired to cooperate.

This issue of Deli Business addresses the leadership imperative by saluting 10 individuals who have made a difference. Sometimes the contribution is internal to their own organization, sometimes a service to the trade; sometimes the real service is to humanity at large. Whatever the individual circumstances, we at Deli Business salute these leaders, both to grant them well deserved recognition and to inspire all of us to be better leaders.

Of course, these 10 individuals represent just a fraction of those who merit recognition, and, in years to come, we will continue the program and extend recognition to other worthy industry leaders. Still, as we surveyed the trade looking for nominations, it was interesting to see that leadership often comes in unusual places. The list of honorees includes people from the buying community, the sell-side, associations and other industry support groups.

But there was no correlation, for example, between the size of the organization and the people nominated for leadership. On the retail end, it was two family-owned regional stars that the industry thought shined particularly bright — perhaps reminding us that great leaders need a certain amount of support if they are to get out there and do their thing.

Even the very definition of achievement and leadership is raised by the varied nominees. Carol Christison, for example, has built an organization from a shoestring operation with one part-time employee to a 30-person team with a budget in the millions. Ileen Bloch of The Shelby Report, on the other hand, was recognized simply for always being there. She was never a member of organizations, never built an empire, but she showed up at everything for over 30 years and helped where she could. As Woody Allen said: “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” A thought to remember as we think about leadership. If you give up, if you quit, you can’t really lead very well.

But there is more to it than that. There is competency, integrity and teamwork, and yet there is still something more. It is said that when Cicero spoke, citizens of Rome said, “What a fine speaker he is.” But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, “Let us march.”

How do we each conduct ourselves so that those around us are inspired to do all they can? That is the essence of leadership and is what each of us must pursue to be truly successful. In contemporary commerce we may not need much marching, but we need foodservice programs developed, staff trained, new initiatives proposed and executed and, just maybe, a few bags of potatoes thrown in for good measure.