A few weeks ago my daughter and I walked to our local grocery store. Shortly after we got there, the manager made an announcement letting shoppers know that they were having some software issues with their cash registers, that they were working hard to get things moving quickly again, but that we should expect delays when checking out. She sounded calm and friendly. We finished picking up the few things we needed and headed to the checkout area. Sure enough, checkout was a mess with lines so long it was hard to tell where the ends were. This was a Sunday afternoon, right after church, right before football. No one wanted to be stuck at the grocery store. It was a living system powder keg waiting to blow.

As my daughter and I waited in line, I noticed the store manager moving from lane to lane. She spoke to the cashier for a moment, chatted with the customer, bagged groceries occasionally, and then moved on to another lane. She would help out at the self-checkout lanes when needed, then pop in with another cashier or the customer service desk. She was calm and pleasant in a sea of people, directing customers with small orders to the service desk, and getting on the phone every ten minutes or so to let new customers know about the checkout issues they should expect. She was constantly moving, constantly connecting to people, but never raising the anxiety level. In fact, her calm, positive energy worked to diffuse what could have been a nightmare for her team. It was obvious that they were all in it together—that WE were all in it together. She even made us customers feel like a part of the team, rooting for the staff to get this software crisis resolved (and to get us all out of there as soon as possible).

By the time I paid for my groceries and left the store, the manager was at the checkout station next to me on the phone with IT support. It would have been understandable if she had vented her frustration to IT staff, but from what I overheard, she remained calm, friendly, and solution-focused. I almost wanted to stick around to see what would happen. I was so impressed with the manager’s ability to stay calm and connected in an anxious situation that she had zero control over. She was like a black-belt Living-Systems-Calm-and-Connected leader.

All told, I was in line to pay for my groceries for 25 minutes as opposed to the five minutes it usually takes. But it gave me a lot of time to watch the manager. I worked my way through college at a Meijer meat department, and I’ve seen my share of grocery store disasters. I was extremely impressed with how easily the store manager seemed to keep her cool when so many people were on edge. Here are some things I believe contributed to her handling this anxious situation so well:

  • She stayed focused on the people. She worked to find a technical solution, but never to the extent that she stopped connecting to her staff and customers. She understood that in this situation, managing the emotions of the people involved was primary. Getting a solution to the problem in place was secondary.
  • She responded with the right amount of urgency. She moved quickly but never ran. She chatted with people for a few seconds but never lingered. She had an understanding of how fast and how frequently she needed to do different tasks to manage the checkout area until the problem was solved.
  • She stayed positive. She smiled and laughed as she talked to people, and it seemed natural, not at all forced. It would be easy to crumble under the pressure she was facing, but it seemed like she was thriving under it instead. She radiated confidence that this was nothing to freak out about.
  • She jumped in wherever there was a gap. I mentioned above that she helped bag groceries at times. There was no job that she was too important to do. That says a lot to a team.
  • She didn’t make excuses or cast blame. When customers asked what was happening, she answered honestly. When they got angry, she apologized. No excuses. No blame. Just leadership.

I hope that you’ll take a few minutes to think back on the last time you faced a very anxious living system. How would you rate yourself at being calm? At being connected? What did you do well, and what do you need to work on? How would you compare yourself to the grocery store manager?

As a leader, your behavior in an anxious system sets the course for how people will handle the anxiety. It might be worth taking some time to think about how you tend to respond when your version of the checkout lane disaster emerges. What’s going to help you get a little closer to being the kind of leader you want to be?

Until next time, lead on,


Image by steevithak. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license