Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons Learned – Cardboard Boxes & Apple Pancakes

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me in Las Vegas for the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Sales Convention. We learned. We recharged. We celebrated and most of all, we inspired each other to find even greater success tomorrow than we have today.

Each year at General Session, the presentations and awards are followed by a keynote speaker who shares their words of wisdom with the crowd. This year, after our keynote speaker Kevin Brown took a bow at the end of his speech, I heard someone behind me yell: “I’m feeling all the feels now.”

And I couldn’t agree more.

Read more: Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons Learned – Cardboard Boxes & Apple Pancakes

Kevin Brown made us laugh, cry, jump up from our seats to a standing ovation and recognize in his leadership lessons, the ways we can enrich our own. Here are a few takeaways from Kevin’s keynote:

There’s one question you should ask yourself, always. As Kevin said, ask yourself: “What can I do to add value to the people I serve?” He says when you look in the mirror, do you see yourself or do you see the people who helped you become you? We are the sum and the byproduct of all the people who have passed into (or out of) our lives.

Heroes are not ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Kevin believes heroes are far from ordinary. “I don’t think there’s a person in this room doing ordinary things,” he said. The true definition of a hero for Kevin is extraordinary people who choose not to be ordinary.

Splash brilliance on your cardboard box. As a child, our vision for the future is limitless. Then, Kevin explained, our vision begins to narrow, and we don’t see the world as it should be; we see the world as it is. Growing up, Kevin and his friends would live for the day someone bought a washer or dryer in the neighborhood. Why? Because once the box was discarded, they could use it for anything. “If someone got a refrigerator, jackpot!” He said. “We had a time machine. Inside the box, time stood still.” They’d color on the box, “splashing their brilliance” across the cardboard canvas. Then we grow up, Kevin said, and a box no longer stands for imagination, it stands for conformity. We say things like, “Think outside the box,” but Kevin said that phrase makes no sense. “The game is played in the box,” he explained. Why are we drawn to certain people and certain leaders? Because they never lost their ability to decorate the box. They still splash their unique brilliance on it every day. That’s why, to us, their approach to life and leadership looks different – because fundamentally, it is.

Nobody notices normal. A trip to Disney with Kevin’s son, Josh, who was diagnosed with autism, proved to be a turning point in Kevin’s theory of heroes and in his young son’s life. Josh was on a specific diet, and when they went to a restaurant at Disney on the first day of the trip, the chef didn’t have all the ingredients necessary to make the apple pancakes Josh requested. The next day, Josh asked to return to the restaurant, and the same chef was working. This time, she came out to their table and said she could make the pancakes. How? After the interaction the day before, she’d gone to the store on her way home from work and bought all the ingredients necessary for Josh’s apple pancakes. It was an incredible lesson in love, support, and customer service. “Nobody notices normal,” Kevin said. “Satisfied is code for ordinary and organizations chase it like gold.” Instead, you want enthusiastic ambassadors for your brand – the apple pancake variety of ambassadors – and that only happens with extraordinary customer service. Josh went to that restaurant every day for the entire trip, enjoying Mickey-shaped apple pancakes, and on his next trip to Disney, he returned once again, near-famous for his meal request. The chef had taken the interaction and transformed it into an opportunity to launch a menu for children with special dietary needs, and more than one million kids were served. The experience was so profound for Josh, he’d wind up moving to Orlando just to be closer to the chef, who he kept in touch with for years.

Customer feedback usually follows two kinds of interactions. Kevin said: “There are only two times when people talk about you: When you exceed expectations or miss them completely.” We’ll pay a premium for people who reach beyond the requirements and achieve something remarkable. Like the Disney chef, leaders must constantly ask that question: What can I do to make your life better? The chef could’ve easily said, “No, we don’t have apple pancakes on the menu.” And that would’ve been that. But she went to the store. She purchased the ingredients. She went above and beyond, and it did no less than change Josh’s life and the lives of the one million kids she’d go on to serve. Ordinary has become commoditized. It’s what some people wrongly compete with others to achieve. Extraordinary makes heroes.

Be careful of the vision people cast on your lives. Kevin said we either live up to or down to the vision people cast upon us and that practice isn’t right. Instead, we need to create our own storylines – just like his son, who was told by teachers and doctors he’d be lucky to even graduate high school. With hard work and support from his “Mama Bear” and family, Josh graduated high school … with honors.

So, what’s the message? Yes, a hero is an extraordinary person who chooses not to be ordinary but as Kevin explained, it’s also someone who understands the storyline life tries to give them and rewrites it their own way.

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