What Walmart Greeters Taught me about Leadership

Looming over six feet tall with a scraggly beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a 12 inch ponytail tied with a rubber band, and a vest dotted with military patches, George would be at home riding a Harley with a motorcycle gang. Instead, he holds a clear plastic jug plastered with yellow smiley-face stickers and filled with dollar bills. And he enthusiastically says, “Welcome to Walmart. Have fun! Want a sticker?” George is my favorite Walmart greeter. I’ve learned a lot about leadership from George.

My second favorite greeter is Jimmy. Unlike George who stands, Jimmy sits…in his motorized wheel-chair. His physical disability keeps him from standing or even holding one of those charity jugs. Yet, with the same exuberance, he makes you feel good with his, “Welcome to Walmart. Thanks for coming.”

I don’t know how well the following statement would hold up under a scientific study, but I believe it to be true. Shoppers who meet George and Jimmy as they arrive buy more stuff at Walmart than those who meet other greeters who, for the sake of not being too harsh, come across with much less enthusiasm.

Both George and Jimmy use their leadership mirror well.

What is a leadership mirror? It’s a concept rooted in science and in the bible.

In 1995 an Italian neuroscientist  discovered what are called ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain. Essentially, a part of our brain lights up when we sense intention behind another’s action. When that part of our brain turns on, we feel a connection to that person. Their actions activate our mirror neurons. For example, when someone smiles at us, it drives the same motor response on my face. We smile. That experience then sends signals to our emotional center so that we share a positive emotion with the person. The strongest emotions we portray ripple out to others, whether those emotions are good or bad.

Before scientists discovered these mirror neurons, the bible already had. Remember what the writer of Proverbs wrote?

Prov. 15.1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

That explains that if when I go to Walmart and either George or Jimmy is on duty that day, I have a better experience shopping. They have used their leadership mirror well, even though they probably don’t even know it. Their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice have become a mirror to me that I subconsciously reflect back to them which in turn affects my behavior and emotions.

This concept profoundly impacts our ability to lead as well. When we use our leadership mirror effectively, team attitudes and performance improves. When we don’t, the opposite occurs. Just think about how you feel the next time you go to Walmart and encounter a dumpy, negative, sleepy-faced greeter versus a George or a Jimmy greeter.

Consider these questions and ask yourself if you need to polish your leadership mirror.

  • Am I keenly aware of how I come across to those I lead with my body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice?
  • Do I consistently portray a positive upbeat tone to others?
  • What is my default facial expression… a scowl or a smile?
  • Do I consistently show up the same way each day at the office or do I leave people asking, “I wonder which boss is showing up today, the mad, sad, or happy one?”
  • Do I attempt to truly be present with others in the moment or do yesterday’s events, today’s task list, and tomorrow’s problems distract me from fully engaged interactions?

If we as leaders pay a bit more attention to our leadership mirror and use it well, we not only can increase team performance, but can actually bless those on our team as we help them activate their mirror neurons for the good.

Lately, how have you used your leadership mirror?

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