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What I Learned About Leadership From a Panera Window Cleaner

Wednesday, July 25, 2018
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I often start my work day with a huge glass of unsweetened iced tea at Panera. Everyone knows it. Even my co-workers have termed it my “Panera Office.” I insist that I’m more productive there; I’m free from interruptions, highly caffeinated, and have a strong internet connection. But a recent experience confirmed for me that my Panera time is actually helping me on my leadership journey.

Every month or so, a professional window cleaner shows up at Panera in the early morning hours, and within 90 minutes or so, leaves the glass sparkling and clear. This speaks to me. I love clean windows—the light, the clarity. I am the proud owner (aka fanatic) of almost 100 plants in my home and office, so light matters. But one morning, I found myself fixated on the technique the window cleaner used in creating magical lucidity, and I found several excellent leadership lessons therein.

Different Tools

Window cleaners use several different tools to reach their goals. One rag for drying, one for stubborn spots, a bucket with slightly soapy water, a squeegee, a sponge, an extension pole, and a ladder. The combination varies depending on the size, shape, condition, and location of the window. Good leaders do very much the same thing, using the right tools at the right time depending on the circumstances. However, depending too much on one tool, even if one is comfortable with it, may yield less than stellar results.

Attention to Detail

I was especially struck by how often my Panera window cleaner would take a step back, lean to one side, and examine the window pane from different angles. This allows an altered perspective to see things one hasn’t noticed before. Strong leaders do this as well—viewing challenges from various perspectives. Some call this a third-person perspective. But the best leaders actually take on a fourth-person perspective, looking at themselves looking at the problem. This enables us to challenge our inherent biases and view situations through a lens of self.

Quiet Grace and Simplicity

Window cleaning is not that complex, but neither is leadership. Both are just hard to do well. I noticed how the window cleaner moved from one pane to the next—seamlessly, easily. It was almost like a dance. Strong leaders exhibit the same type of presents. They are able to adjust and allow changing circumstances to dictate their reaction and actions.

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It occurred to me as I watched my window cleaning friend finish his work that the result was a clear shining pane of glass, transparent from both sides and from all angles. Absolutely nothing to hide. And this was my final thought about the connection with leadership. As leaders we owe it to those whom we lead to be completely transparent, open, honest, and vulnerable—like glass which is easily broken. This allows those who we lead to connect with us in very real and clear ways.

A little Windex helps.

I hope you can join me in Seattle on November 7-8 for the conference, ATD TalentNext: Creating a Competitive Advantage Through Workplace Culture.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

4 Comments
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Patrick! I love the creativity, points made, and terrific insights. What a wonderful analogy and lessons learned. Awesome! For my clarification purpose only, is the word "presents" in this line ... intentional? "Strong leaders exhibit the same type of presents."
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Great analogy. Truly appreciated the story and alignement with Leadership.
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Great Post. Appreciate the message.
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