No drinks or food in the house, please.

I recently attended a conference of 100 Internet-related innovators that was held at a private home in the Midwest. The couple who owned this venue were the kindest people one could imagine — opening up their entire home for a group of complete strangers to “unconference” in their living rooms and backyard for several days. Every morning — this older couple, let’s call them Irene and Harold — would reservedly and excitedly speak into a microphone to share their welcomes to launch each new day of activities. On the third day, all the visitors were feeling fully comfortable in the surrounds, and there was an exciting panel about to start with everyone buzzedly gathering on the tented lawn. Irene picked up the microphone looking uncharacteristically disappointed and without being able to get everyone’s focus and attention, spoke softly, “Excuse me. We have signs on the doors of the house to ask you to kindly not bring drinks and food into the house … can you ….” At which point the event’s organizer/emcee took the microphone from Irene and said in a slightly louder voice, “Excuse me everyone.” People immediately took attention as this was coming from the organizer who arranged the event — the one who got his longtime friends Irene and Harold to co-host and cover all the costs for this gathering.

“Excuse me everyone,” the organizer said sternly. And then softened. “Who here thinks that our friends Irene and Harold have been the most wonderful of hosts for all of us here?” We all naturally raised our hands. “Good,” he said smiling, “And now, who here feels that Irene has greeted us every morning with kindness and grace that has made you feel truly welcome in her home?” We all began to cheer, and Irene broke out into a brilliant smile. He went on, “Who here … will do anything for Irene to thank her and Harold for these past few days?” The entire group applauded. “And who here thinks that spilling drinks on Irene’s carpet when all the doors have signs that clearly read ‘No drinks or food in the house, please.’ runs counter to honoring our hosts’ simple request?” A resounding “YES” resulted. “Let us now enjoy this panel, and thank you all for your attention. And thank you, again, Irene and Harold!”

The brilliance of the organizer’s interjection, in my mind, was twofold:

1. The organizer made the co-hosts feel proud of their act of hospitality by recognizing them and honoring them broadly. Irene’s request was couched within the overall respect the crowd owed to her — and was unfortunately starting to blissfully ignore their debt.

2. The organizer made the audience feel as though they were led to the natural conclusion of what “the right thing” was by grounding an act of compliance within the context of gratitude. We all owed Irene (and Harold) a debt of gratitude that could be partly repaid right there and then by simply following their one rule.

I thought how, in contrast, any other organizer might have grabbed the microphone from Irene and instead sternly admonished the entire crowd for spilling a drink inside the house even when signs were clearly posted everywhere — which would have soured the mood of the gathering because there was only one culprit hiding amongst us all, but the entire group would unnecessarily bear the message’s negativity. And furthermore, it could only unjustifiably draw negative feelings towards Irene from those partygoers who can’t stand a buzzkill (even when the buzz deserves to be killed).

I shared this story with a CEO friend who said it reminded him of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech that helped to move the civil war between the North and the South to an end by appealing to “the better angels in all of us.” In other words, speaking to the sense of possibility and humanity that we all so easily forget when we’re completely distracted by the events at hand — in this case the good times people can have at the expense of others and forget their manners.

How leaders enable — through simply pointing out what matters most within the medium of a moment of time and when getting everyone’s attention is impossible — a group of complete strangers to unite and act as one continues to strike me as an enormously creative space in which to explore and learn. -JM